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In the early 1980s, when he wrote Hallelujah, Leonard Cohen was floundering – he’s the song’s 'baffled king,' famously agonizing over verses while sitting in his underwear.Courtesy of the Cohen Estate / Mongrel Media

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  • Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
  • Written and directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine
  • Starring Leonard Cohen, Larry (Ratso) Sloman, Judy Collins,
  • Classification PG; 115minutes
  • Opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal theatres July 15

Reflecting in 1986 on his so-so music career, the poet/novelist/troubadour Leonard Cohen suggested the best was yet to come, even if he might not be around to see it. “I feel I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me,” he told Rolling Stone’s Larry (Ratso) Sloman. “My estate will swell; my name will flourish.”

Cohen wasn’t wrong. Over the course of his long, weird career, fans and other appreciators came to embrace Cohen’s melodic charms in fits, spells and spasms. Today? He’s iconic.

As is his song Hallelujah, the subject of a documentary from Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song uses his most famous composition to explain Cohen, whose life was composed of nothing if not “the minor falls, the major lifts.” He died in 2016. Six years later, Cohen’s career is right on track.

In the early 1980s, when he wrote Hallelujah, Cohen was floundering – he’s the song’s “baffled king,” famously agonizing over verses while sitting in his underwear, banging his head on the floor of a hotel.

Hallelujah was recorded for 1984′s Various Positions album, which also included Dance Me to the End of Love. Cohen’s label, Columbia Records, decided the album was unmarketable and refused to release it in the United States. Label president Walter Yetnikoff, in one of the great music business quotes ever uttered between cigar puffs, said to the brooding crooner, “Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”

All the lore behind Hallelujah and Cohen is in the documentary, but none of it will be new to aficionados who might prefer a more focused and deeper dive into the song without so much personal biography.Erin Dickins/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

All that lore is in the documentary, and none of it will be new to the Cohen aficionados, who might prefer a more focused and deeper dive into Hallelujah without so much personal biography. Mainstream audiences, on the other hand, will appreciate the context and the pairing of song and subject: Hallelujah mixes sex and spirituality, as did the libidinous Buddhist.

Asked if he considered himself a ladies man, Cohen said he was in no position to offer an opinion. Sharon Robinson, his long-time collaborator and backup singer, says in the film that Cohen saw women as “part of the path to some sort of righteousness or enlightenment.” It wouldn’t have been very hard to find a contrary view that Cohen was lyrically misogynistic and a cad in the flesh, but directors Geller and Goldfine weren’t likely committed to that search.

The film was inspired by Alan Light’s book from 2012, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah. It is a rare song that deserves its own book, but Hallelujah is one of them. The story is a doozy.

Originally released in 1984, the song didn’t get much notice until John Cale recorded it in 1991, which in turn inspired a recording of Cale’s version by Jeff Buckley in 1994. Buckley’s soaring version simultaneously launched his career and the song into the stratosphere. Cover versions by Bono and Susan Boyle were unfortunate, but k.d. lang and others did much better by a song that flourished on television talent searches and the feature animated film Shrek.

One of the film’s most charismatic moments involve Bob Dylan, who was hip to Hallelujah before the rest caught on. Cohen refers to his fellow songwriter as “Mr. Dylan” on more than one occasion.

The formality was a gesture of respect – game recognizes game. And just as Dylan refuses to decode his music, Cohen is cryptic about his: “I think it’s insulting, in a way, to ask someone to explain his art,” he says.

Fair point. That’s why we have documentaries.

Originally released in 1984, Cohen's Hallelujah didn’t get much notice until John Cale recorded it in 1991, which in turn inspired a recording of Cale’s version by Jeff Buckley in 1994.Graeme Mitchell/Redux / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / Mongrel Media

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