Although Dan Geller and Danya Goldfine’s “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” is a documentary about the song’s creation, it focuses primarily on Cohen’s life as a whole. This song encompasses Cohen more than any other of his creations, with so much of his life pertaining to his relationship with God. To understand the song is to understand the years that led Cohen to his struggle with this relationship.
And a struggle it is: The film ranges over tens of books of 180-odd verses written over years, each page bearing attempts at “Hallelujah.” Cohen is painted as a man bent on two things: God and not repeating himself. The film’s strength is its use of archival footage to attest to this lonely and difficult urgency for ever-new forms of holiness. There are choice shots of Cohen in mid-‘60s Toronto intoning verse at poetry readings, of his first musical TV appearance, ‘60s duets with Judy Collins, ‘70s tours with John Lissauer, the release of “Hallelujah” and an avalanche of covers; his ‘90s reclusion at Mount Baldy Zen Center, world tours in the 2000s and 2010s after his manager stole millions from him.
Cohen is nearly alone among rock stars for his nonsacrilegious religiosity and perhaps truly alone for his desire to age. His use of language was always sacramental, and music a work to complete in maturity, hence his return to his Jewish roots at age 40, when tradition permits Kabbalah study. When Cohen speaks in the film, it is always the confession of a man broken and steeped in God’s mercy: “When you see the world and you see the laws of brute necessity which govern it, you realize that the only way that you can reconcile this vale of suffering … to sanity is to glue your soul to prayer.”
Geller and Goldfine do not explain the contrast between Cohen’s privileged upbringing and this searing attunement to suffering, but perhaps there is nothing to explain for a man who views this vale of tears as self-evident and human healing as the task to be spoken for. When Cohen’s friend Nancy Bacal visited him at Mount Baldy, she fretted over purgatory. He stopped her — “This is purgatory. What an amazing experiment this is.”
The unaccountable fault of the film is its dedication of a paltry three minutes out of two hours to Cohen’s life before his thirties. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been much use — after all, he didn’t write songs before then and this is the story of his grandest one. But one doubts it. This film is also meant to be the story of Cohen’s relationship with God, but glosses over its origins, over the very roots of a man who wanted nothing more than to return to them.
Conversely, the film locates this struggle, this sacred and sensual sloughing-off of wretched displacement, in the song “Hallelujah.” It is a prayer that has been sung for millennia; Cohen pushed it into the hot-blooded world. The album it was on, Various Positions, marked Cohen’s transition from whispery acoustic poems to post-disco electronic music. Columbia disliked it so much they restricted the record to the United Kingdom after a United States release was paid for.
Regardless, this obscure track has garnered devotees: Bob Dylan covered it, then John Cale, then Jeff Buckley, then Rufus Wainwright for “Shrek.” Cohen exchanged the Old Testament verses for cheekier ones (“She tied you to her kitchen chair … ”). The film does a stellar job of conveying the monumental, reverential relevance that “Hallelujah” bears to every situation in which it’s sung, from hammy talent shows and grimy subway stations to weddings and funerals.
Cohen’s life is one of displacement and depression. The source of this is clarified when he explains his inability to stick with Zen: While he was a man of discipline and religion, he approached conflict as a songwriter, in which his songwriting isn’t a means of order but prayer. Toward the end of his life and of this film, an interviewer asked him about this distress. He said it had lifted completely: not that he got what he wanted, “but the search itself dissolved.”
The holy “Hallelujah” is, after all, a broken one.