The Origins Of An Epic: ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’

If you’re Jewish and Canadian like me, knowing the music of Leonard Cohen is pretty much in your DNA. If you’re otherwise part of the Jewish Diaspora, you too likely feel a connection to the poet, songwriter and singer. And even if you’re neither, you have no doubt at some point heard a version of Hallelujah, one of the most recognizable songs of the last 30 years. Such is the legacy of the late blooming troubadour from Montreal, as the new documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, lovingly explores. 

The illuminating, funny and moving documentary, from Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine (Ballets Russes) is part biography (the childhood loss of Cohen’s father, the pivotal introduction by Judy Collins, his years at a Zen monastery and the very successful 21st Century comeback tour after Cohen’s manager stole the bulk of his money), and part deep cut of a track that he spent more than five years working on, composing something north of 150 verses. As he originally conceived it, Hallelujah incorporated sex, the Old Testament and spirituality — the latter a longstanding major source of inquiry in Cohen’s life. And it was the song that was once dismissed by his record company.

As Cohen relayed the story, the then-head of Columbia Records, Walter Yetnikoff, told him, “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.” The company refused to release the 1984 album Various Positions in the U.S. 

It was Bob Dylan, John Cale and then the late Jeff Buckley who brought renewed attention and more secular interpretations to the track in the late 1980s and 90s. Weirdly, but amusingly, it was Shrek and its shortened version of the song (the Shrek filmmakers “cleaned up of the naughty bits”) that has become a mainstay in the pop culture and music pantheon. 

Memorializing Cohen has become a mini cottage industry since his death in 2016. There have been museum exhibitions, television tributes and the 2019 documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love, to name just a few of the ways the music and life of Leonard Cohen continue to speak to us. Hallelujah is a valuable addition to the Canon of Cohen and even those for whom Cohen is Their Man, will surely discover something new about him in this latest offering. No doubt there will be more before too long. And we will be the richer for it. 

‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ is playing at theaters in the Twin Cities. Check listings for showtime.