Can We Say “Hallelujah” About the New Leonard Cohen Documentary?

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Song, A Journey. Dirs. Dan Geller, Dana Goldfine, Sony Pictures Classics, 2022. Now Available on Streaming and Blu Ray/DVD.

Could there be any other way to make a musical documentary about Leonard Cohen’s life and work than one focused upon “Hallelujah,” a song which took on a life of its own due in no small part to [*CHECKS NOTES*] the movie Shrek?! While Martin Scorsese’s career-long dalliances with a certain Mr. Zimmerman obviate the positive response to such a query, I likewise admit that I found myself utterly astonished by this picture.

The reason why might not be too obvious but it is valid: “Hallelujah” is the entry point, the gateway drug, into the larger Cohen ouvré for the majority of humanity. Whether you have positive or negative feelings about either the song’s merits or, alternatively, its ubiquitous nature (which has admittedly become pretty goddamn annoying), it likewise is impossible to ignore that it has become as much of a cultural artifact as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” ”This Land is Your Land,” or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Cohen’s larger corpus will stand beside Bob Dylan’s for whatever decades we have left on the planet as a species. But this song will be the only one that non-aficionados will turn to for spiritual succor. We’re stuck with it and we have to live with it.

As such, the documentary begins with this acknowledgment in order to build a biography of Cohen. The story of “Hallelujah,” along with its context as a cut on the marginalized 1984 LP Various Positions, serves as a narrative climax before segueing into the manner by which the song became a cultural phenomenon. Here is the point wherein the true magic of the narrative device delivers; by spending time on multiple people describing the impact of a single song, the audience is given a wonderful and novel opportunity for reflection on Cohen’s overall power as an artist.

As counterpoint, consider one of Scorsese’s aforementioned Dylan docs, No Direction Home (2005); clocking in at 3.5 hours, it superficially might seem the diametric opposite of the Cohen picture. But that’s only on the superficial level. Scorsese was not focused solely on Dylan the artist and his reception by the audience. Instead, the director shaped the narrative as a larger reflection on our society, with the story of Dylan’s early years and his controversial transition to electric guitar as an analogy for what happened to our civic society after the United States “went electric” and transitioned from a discourse based on analog print to the spectacle of visual media. The beginning of the film, Episode One, features major artistic heavyweights like Pete Seeger and Allen Ginsberg, two luminaries of the Old Left, a political discourse in American society that was steeped in high intellectual standards (Ginsberg’s epic poem “Kaddish For Naomi Ginsberg,” allegedly a eulogy for the poet’s mother, was in fact a reverential hymn for the strain of Jewish American radicalism that had been lost after McCarthyism, suburbanization, and upwards class mobility domesticated and gentrified the Depression-era generation). Episode Two by contrast seems to be focused upon interview subjects who are far less scholastically inclined, reflecting how the Baby Boomers as a cohort abandoned such high intellectual aspirations (case and point, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump).

All of which is to say that, in such a complex narrative, the measure and analysis of Dylan’s songs is not the primary focus of the discussion. Here, by contrast, “Hallelujah” is a cultural phenomenon and its primacy within the narrative occasions a summative assessment culminating with a true measure of Cohen’s genius.

My favorite moment comes when Brandi Carlile describes playing Jeff Buckley’s 1994 cover of the tune on a loop while contemplating deep into the night the seeming contradiction of her faith and her sexuality. This is almost exactly like my own experience with the song as well. I first encountered the anthem when I watched the recently-released Shrek, featuring a re-edited version of John Cale’s stark solo piano version, delivered in his lonesome Welsh baritone. I was painfully aware of my budding queerness as a student in a vociferously homophobic all-male Catholic prep school. In this interview, wherein Carlile eloquently describes how the song enumerates the pain people of faith feel when put in such circumstances, her words kicked back to consciousness something that I thought I had buried away deep and securely. Without warning, I found myself bursting into uncontrollable weeping.

As a documentary, it is admittedly standard-grade expository filmmaking, enmeshed in the Michael Moore-Ken Burns narrative and editorial style. It regrettably fails to delve deeper into the raw mechanics of either lyrical structure or musical theory. While there is a passing mention of Cohen’s Jewish faith, the audience is not told the Biblical antecedents of the lyrics in the stories of King David and Samson, let alone the deeper theological and/or Kabbalistic implications. This is particularly regrettable because the dearth implies a subtle strain of sexism in Cohen’s thought, with Ten New Songs album co-writer Sharon Robinson suggesting the bard’s faith instrumentalized women in service of a particularly macho interpretation of Judaism. While this might be a possibility, understanding the Kabbalah significantly complicates such a claim. In fact, Kabbalah holds as one of its core tenets the divine femininity of the deity, a theological development intended by ancient mystics to counterbalance the undeniable patriarchy of the Torah. In such a cosmology, human sexuality is not stigmatized, as it has been by Christianity; instead, it is said to reflect a microcosmic version of divinity itself. (Admittedly such an attempted theological vaccine has not prevented all sorts of sexism in both religious Judaism and Zionism, both of which have been chocked full of misogyny and homo-/trans-phobia, but that is for another discussion…)

These and other details would obviate that “Hallelujah,” while seemingly-simplistic, is in fact a profound song written by an artist of depth equal to Bob Dylan (who makes a brief cameo in the film). The stories of David and Samson are about all-too-human patriarchs felled by exactly the sexism alluded to by Robinson. King David “…Saw her [Bathsheba] bathing on the roof/Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew” him. The King, in a fit of jealousy, arranges for her husband Uriah the Hittite to be killed on the battlefield so in turn the monarch might be able to seduce and marry her. “She [Delilah] tied you [Samson] to a kitchen chair/She broke your throne, and she cut your hair” in a story where lust is prioritized above sexual ethics. In other words, this is a hymn about the central challenge of sexuality, unbridled pleasure at the expense of one’s conscience. Such a seam offers the filmmakers profundity that would have been accessible to the viewers. It would have furthermore augmented the utter tragedy of Cohen’s career, one marked repeatedly by marginalization (such as the fate of Various Positions) and shameful highway robbery by duplicitous management. Did “Hallelujah” continue to resonate with him because of such a juxtaposition?

Yet despite all this, the film is a triumph I highly recommend.

Andie Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.