Beautiful Winners Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Hallelujah, the documentary, opens with an ending. It shows Leonard Cohen performing in what turned out to be his final concert in Auckland, New Zealand, on December 21, 2013. Among the 28 songs on the playlist that evening was “Hallelujah,” his monumental love song about the desires entertained by both body and soul. It is classic Cohen: down on his knees, talk-singing, and placing an exaggerated emphasis on the “do you” conclusion of the song’s third line about not really caring for music. He’s not singing as much as he’s performing a performance, a role he had played so many times it had become a ritual. It is an irresistible way to open a film about a man and a song that have made an indelible mark on contemporary music.

The secret to making a good documentary is access to people and material, and the directors were blessed in this regard. Cohen approved their film only a year before his death and along with that approval came the cooperative involvement of Robert Kory, the trustee of the Cohen Family Trust. This connection resulted in access to the voluminous notebooks Cohen kept as he obsessively worked on the lyrics to the song; the music journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman thinks that it may have had as many as 180 verses. The actual number is 80. But Ratso’s playful exaggeration is close to Cohen’s own view of songwriting. Leonard says the old Beat philosophy “first thought, best thought” never worked for him. “There hardly is a first thought; it’s all sweat. The experience is the experience of work and failure,” he tells Ratso. “You’re just trying to lay it out as accurately as you can.”

Sloman plays Boswell to Cohen’s Dr Johnson. Their relationship began in 1974 when Sloman was writing a feature for Rolling Stone magazine and it continued for the next 42 years. During that time, he conducted numerous interviews, all of which were recorded on cassette, and he made them available to the filmmakers. They were documentary gold, and sections from them occur throughout the film. They also provide the only time when Cohen is struck speechless by one of Ratso’s questions. Cohen tells him about the difficulty he had in writing the song. “I found myself in a shabby room in the Royalton Hotel trying to finish ‘Hallelujah’ and not being able to, and I remember being in my underwear on the carpet banging my head against the floor and saying, ‘I can’t do it anymore, it’s too hard.’” Ratso’s response to this punishing story of wrestling with the angel of songwriting is to ask, “Do you think anyone takes this much care with a pop song?” Cohen’s reaction is pitch-perfect incredulity. The camera work, also a fortuitous discovery, was footage that had been shot in a New York restaurant to be used for an EPK Sony was making to promote The Future, Cohen’s brilliant 1992 album. The camera holds on Leonard’s face for what seems an interminable length of time (it’s about eight seconds), and we see him thinking about how to respond to the profound misunderstanding the question represents. He doesn’t say anything. In a film that explores the relationship between the religious and the profane, it is the only moment that approximates profanity. “Hallelujah” was a prayer, an orchestration of dazzled and dazzling words in the process of becoming flesh. It was never a pop song.

But it was astonishingly popular. “Hallelujah” has been covered over 300 times, and 50 of those recordings are by major artists, including Bob Dylan, John Cale, Bono, Willie Nelson, Rufus Wainwright and kd lang. A cleaned-up version of the song was also on the soundtrack for Shrek, the 2001 DreamWorks computer-animated comedy, which sold over two million copies. But the best-known cover of the song is Jeff Buckley’s anguished, rhapsodic and sexualized version recorded in 1994. His cover was so compelling that many younger musicians, like Brandi Carlile, who has also covered the song, thought Buckley wrote it. She became obsessed by his version, and she admits that hearing it was the way she reconciled her sexuality.

The lyrics for Cohen’s original 1984 recording focused on a biblical trope, so the opening verses conflate David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, and Susanna and the Elders, all characters who operate inside a mixed code of religious devotion and justice and variations of satisfied and frustrated desire. As the song developed, Cohen left the Old Testament behind and concentrated on the contemporary and the carnal. “I choked on the words because it simply wasn’t direct enough,” he told Sloman in 1988. “I wanted to push the song deep into the secular world, into the ordinary world.” The new verse foregrounded the body, its gains and losses: “There was a time when you let me know / What’s really going on below / But now you never show it to me, do you? / And I remember when I moved in you / And the holy dove was moving too / And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah.” This orgasmic version intimates a different kind of ecstasy and it is the interpretation of the song that Buckley emphasizes. It’s through this connection to Buckley that the film doubles its focus and temporarily loses its way.

Goldfine and Geller were thinking about making a documentary based on a single song when they discovered that Alan Light’s book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” had done exactly that in 2012. The filmmakers contacted the journalist and they ended up doing favours for one another; Light helped them in contacting interview subjects for their film and they in turn gave Light their interview tapes for an expanded edition of his book. Goldfine had recognized that Light’s story “went much deeper into Jeff Buckley and we told Alan the film was going to be more about Leonard.” That turns out not to be what happens.

What does occur is that Buckley’s story takes over the film. As its title indicates, the documentary is about a man and a song, so it’s not entirely surprising when that combination drifts from the song to another man. In this regard, Goldfine and Geller show the influence of the book from which they took direction. The crack in their documentary is that too much Light gets in. More than 15 minutes is taken up documenting Buckley’s history with “Hallelujah,” from St Anne’s Cathedral in Brooklyn in 1991, to performing it in the Sin-é Café, and to his 18-month-long international tour, where it closed every concert.

We get testimonials about his version from musicians, music producers and even his girlfriend, the musician Joan Wasser (aka Joan As Police Woman). She praises his guitar playing on the song as “crazy good,” and declares that “musically Jeff made it his own. Leonard wrote a beautiful song and then Jeff made it sound like an angel was singing it.” Steve Berkowitz, the head of A&R at Columbia Records from 1987 to 2012, who signed Buckley to a three-record contract, perches himself in the upper reaches of self-satisfaction in claiming that their version “elevated the plateau of visibility of the song to the rest of the world in a less forbidding way than those dark grumbly voices of those older guys who had done it.” Those dark grumbly voices belonged to Bob Dylan, John Cale and Leonard Cohen. In light of Berkowitz’s remarks, it’s worth keeping in mind Ratso’s assessment of the music executives at Columbia who refused to release the 1984 album on which the song was first recorded; their judgment “symbolized everything that’s wrong with those assholes who run music labels.” There is a tidy coda that can be attached to this narrative of the song’s rejected history. In 2019 John Lissauer was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for producing, arranging and conducting the first recording of “Hallelujah.”

A contributing factor to the film’s refocus on Buckley’s “Hallelujah” was no doubt his untimely death by drowning at the age of 30 in Memphis; there is romance in the tragedy, and romance led to royalties. In 2008 “Hallelujah” held three positions on the British Christmas charts: Buckley at number 1; Alexandra Burke, the winner that year of X Factor UK, at number 2; and Leonard’s own 1984 version at number 36. He called this development an “amusing and ironic sidebar because the record the song came from, Various Positions, wasn’t considered good enough for the American market.” He summed up his feelings with characteristically wry humour, “A mild sense of revenge arose in my heart.”

Among the documentary’s many strengths is the voice of Cohen himself, taken from a miscellany of sources, including Sloman’s cassettes, television interviews and a wide array of performances. Along with Leonard, three other persuasive interview subjects appear at various times during the film’s one hour and 58 minutes: John Lissauer, Judy Collins and Dominique Issermann. Both women were highly accomplished: Collins, the singer whose version of “Suzanne” on her 1966 album, In Your Life, made the song famous; and Issermann, one of the world’s most sought-after fashion photographers. Their relationships with Cohen each had a different degree of intimacy. Collins was always his friend but never his lover; Issermann was no less a friend but was the love of his life. He dedicated the songs from I’m Your Man to her in 1988; he worked on the lyrics for “Hallelujah” over two years when they were together; she sat in on the studio sessions for Various Positions, and Cohen admitted she was the first woman with whom he was really in love. He was 50 when they met in Hydra. She is a splendid presence in the film; she calls the song “a very obscure symbolist poem” and, in searching for the effect it has on people, compares it to “a bird that is flying in a room and sometimes touching the walls of the culture. ‘Hallelujah’ is a song that breaks your heart and then heals it after it has been broken.”

The journey the film traces most effectively was characterized by one reviewer as being “pulled between holiness and horniness.” Bob Dylan perceptively observed that Cohen didn’t write songs, he wrote prayers. Some occupy that state of mind more obviously. “Who by Fire” picks up the repetitive rhythms of the Yom Kippur chant Unetanneh Tokef; and “Amen” from Old Ideas, his 12th studio album, released in 2012, layers the personal (“Tell me again / When I’m clean and I’m sober”) and the cultural (“Tell me again / when the rest of the culture / Has passed through the eye of the camp”). But “Hallelujah” toggles between the soul and the body more delicately and more profoundly than any of Cohen’s songs. Its various verses walk a fine line between the spiritual and the secular, the ecstatic and the orgasmic, and between coming to the Lord and just coming. In one way, he was simply relying on the richness of the word that gave the song its name. “The word ‘Hallelujah’ is so rich, so abundant in resonances,” Cohen says in the film, “and people have been singing that word for thousands of years, just to affirm our journey here.” Through his receptivity and labour, Cohen’s achievement was to give that affirmation a lasting and generative form. One of the verses of the song says, “There is a blaze of light in every word.” It could have said “firestorm.” In “The Stranger Song,” Cohen writes about a dealer who “was watching for the card / That was so high and wild / He’ll never need to deal another.” “Hallelujah” was that musical card.

It is impossible to watch this documentary and come away not liking Leonard Cohen, and not recognizing his generosity, his care for other people and his unwavering commitment to the hard work of writing songs. For anyone who sees it, the documentary called Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song will be yet another beginning for an artist who, throughout his life, was open to the possibility of celebration. That’s how the beauty of his writing overthrows us. That’s why the light always gets in. ❚