Review: A New Documentary Honors Leonard Cohen and “Hallelujah,” His Greatest Gift to Us All

It’s a credit to Leonard Cohen, the great Canadian author, poet, songwriter and performer, that his song, “Hallelujah” plays across a significant portion of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s new documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song and at no point does it become annoying or overused. The song, which you would know when you hear it, is perhaps one of the best-written melodies of all time paired with the deeply meaningful lyrics, and since it was first recorded in 1984, it’s been covered by everyone from the Velvet Underground’s John Cale to k.d. lang to a cappella group Pentatonix, each bringing their own sense of musical language and emotion to this song that plays more like a hymn, a prayer.

The story of the song itself is an interesting one, from being all but forgotten on Cohen’s 1984 Various Positions album to being covered for a tribute album and finding new life across artists, genres and generations. But the film itself is much more than just the impact this one song continues to have on audiences and musicians; it’s a full chronicle of the life, work and philosophy of Leonard Norman Cohen, a man who helped define Canadian and American culture of the mid-20th century. At nearly two hours long, the film plays more than sufficient homage to “Hallelujah,” but it takes its time in getting there, recalling Cohen’s childhood and early years in an Orthodox Jewish family in Westmount, Quebec, before he got serious about his music career. Peppered between archival photos and footage of Cohen over the years are interviews with everyone from his professional collaborators, past lovers and friends to musicians like Glenn Hansard, Regina Spektor and Rufus Wainwright, who all speak to Cohen’s enormous influence over them.

At times, the film feels a bit amateurish, edited simply and including oddly placed (both within the film and on the screen) title cards that jump us between events in Cohen’s life. There’s nothing slick or special about what’s on screen, but it is all productive, as each segment further illuminates the artist’s state of mind and intentions during every stage in Cohen’s story. Moments featuring archived interviews with the man himself, included several conversations he had with longtime friend and journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, are easily the film’s best as it’s the best opportunity we get to know the man from the source himself. A very close second to that are the many, many snippets of “Hallelujah” from different artists over the years, on its journey from tribute album to movie soundtrack and more as it found its way into the popular conversation. The arc of that bit of this story is nothing less than fascinating, learning as we do how close this song came to never actually seeing the light of day.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song may not be the best-looking documentary ever, but as far as a chronicle about Leonard Cohen and this very special song, the film more than gets its point across. Its final act, exploring the song’s many interpretations and its writer’s worldwide journey on one last tour around the world, is something special indeed, a reminder that great art not only entertains, it moves us in ways both unexpected and inevitable. In a career filled with high points, “Hallelujah” is Cohen’s greatest gift to us all—and one that keeps giving. Just today, a cellist at local street fest I visited was playing an instrumental version as he busked the afternoon away. It was a beautiful way to greet the afternoon, and a welcome reminder of this special film. I dropped a few dollars in his case as thanks.

The film is now playing in theaters, including at Music Box Theatre.

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Lisa Trifone