Leonard Cohen Puppets music video Thanks for the Dance

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is an in-depth look at a Montreal legend

A new documentary tells the story of the song that was once rejected by record executives and later became an internationally acclaimed and widely covered contemporary standard.

Before it became a pop culture phenomenon, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” almost didn’t see the light of day. Executives at Columbia Records who had paid for Various Positions didn’t get Cohen and decided against releasing the album in the United States. It was a serious blow to Cohen, who seemed frustrated and discouraged by the decision. Only a decade later, when John Cale recorded a cover of “Hallelujah,” the song took off as a cultural phenomenon.

The documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song explores the history of “Hallelujah” and its cultural resonance. Running at just under two hours, the first half looks at Leonard Cohen’s evolution as an artist and songwriter. “Hallelujah” didn’t spring out of the ether but is the product of decades of work, personal experience and a rigorous writing style. Using archival footage and a cast of talking heads that includes Brandi Carlile, Clive Davis, Judy Collins, Rufus Wainwright and Adrienne Clarkson, among others, Cohen the artist comes into focus. 

The second half differentiates this documentary from others on the subject of Cohen as it explores “Hallelujah”’s specific cultural impact. It not only looks at some of the song’s most famous covers, including ones by John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley, but takes a look at its use in movies (most importantly Shrek) and, finally, its cultural impact on everyday people’s personal lives, as a popular song at weddings, funerals and other church functions. 

For fans of Cohen who are worried about too much rehashing, the documentary features many original perspectives and stories. As easy as it would be to phone it in, they probe deeper and utilize engaging and informative interviews to examine many different facets of Cohen and his art. For those who are less familiar with his work, the movie also offers a great intro to his cultural placement and a rare portrayal of an artist at work — Cohen was a laborious writer, often spending years and hundreds of drafts on every song. 

While the film utilizes its runtime well, it falters in its deeper lyrics analysis. While some of the talking heads discuss how Cohen was not so keen on explaining his lyrical decisions and references, the lack of critical insight into the contents of the song (which were often at odds with its popular reception) feels a bit like a glaring oversight in a movie with such a precise focus. Even without going into “what the song means,” an examination of how the song works; its use of irony, pov and even some of its references could have elevated the documentary even further. 

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song may not reinvent the wheel but it’s nonetheless a careful study of one of Montreal’s favourite sons. The talking heads are incisive, and the archival footage is pertinent and well-used. The movie even touches Cohen’s enormous privilege as a young man, his family’s wealth and social status, which not only permitted his artistic life but also cast doubt on some of his ambition. A labour of love, the documentary stands as a beautiful tribute to Cohen and the artistic process. ■

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 15.

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