Opens Friday! The story of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'

A fascinating window into a creative life, lived in curiosity, looking for answers — just to come up with a song that explains it all.


By Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel                                                     July 12, 2022


Leonard Cohen, singer and songwriter, at home in Los Angeles in September 2016. 

At the age of 74, Canadian poet and troubadour Leonard Cohen started a world tour — his band in matching fedora, with backup singers, many of whom had been with him for years and with a seemingly endless and boundless itinerary.

And “years” were how long this venture went on, five years of performing his ornate, soulful, introspective ballads and laments on a valedictory tour, a victory lap, revered everywhere he played, every show building to that one transcendent moment, that one song with every night’s crowd singing along to what a fellow singer calls “a modern prayer,” “a church moment” at the end of every single concert.

Cohen gave this tune everything he had, night after night — leaning into it one night, laying back on it the next — honoring a singular composition that he recognized had given him everything, and delivered that “everything” late in life, when the “elder” that he’d longed to become could appreciate it.

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” has plenty of footage of his early career, prefiguring his transition from privileged Montreal poet to self-taught singer-songwriter. Folk songbird Judy Collins was among his mentors in making that leap. And we hear other bits of his personal history and track his entire career through this Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine film.

But what they focus on is the thing that made him. It’s that one song.


“Hallelujah” took him seven years to write and re-write, tinkering and expanding and contracting the scale of this magnum opus as he saw fit over the decades after its 1984 introduction on an album his U.S. record label refused to release. His friend and favorite journalist, Larry “Ratso” Sloman of “Rolling Stone” and other publications, recalls Cohen turning out “150-180” verses of “Hallelujah,” notebook after notebook filled with variations of Cohen’s blending of “the holy with the horny,” an epic song deconstructing how that song was built.

“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing ‘Hallelujah’…”

The Jewish Cohen was singing about Old Testament King David struggling to compose a song built around that ancient word of praise in that opening verse. But it’s easy to see himself — seven years struggling, never gaining commercial success and notoriety until his 60s and 70s — as an equally baffled “king.”

The bafflement extends to the song’s journey to glory. An unreleased album, a 1984 music video that did nothing for it, a gorgeous melody with glorious lyrics destined for the dustbin.

But Bob Dylan started playing it in concert. Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale took hold of it and performed it in a spare version. Jeff Buckley found it and gave it a bracing blast of sexualized youth. “Shrek” came along and Dreamworks got Rufus Wainright to record a streamlined version of it. “American Idol” and other singing competition shows had singers take it on.

Geller and Goldfine’s film breezes through that history and attaches the tune to Cohen’s life as a “spiritual seeker,” a Zen student who spoke Hebrew and absorbed “the charged speech” and song “I heard in the synagogue growing up.”

We hear from Cohen’s rabbi and get a handle on how the song fits within Cohen’s faith, and where it sits in his life-long discography, “a mature man chronicling his life” via his musical “conversations with eternity,” struggling with love and spiritual meaning to the very end.

And through it all, we see the many guises of Cohen on camera, Canadian TV in the ’60s, struggling to find his place as a folk bard in the pop singer-songwriting of the ’70s, clinging to a career as he aged into the ’80s and ’90s, warm and playful interviews, recollections of mistakes (working with Phil Spector and his “Wall of Sound”), hints at heartbreak.

Narrowing the focus to this song elevates the film and its subject, and makes a fascinating window into one creative life, lived in curiosity, looking for answers and groping — for seven years — just to come up with a song that explains it all.


Watch the trailer: HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

“There is a religious Hallelujah, but there are many other ones. When one looks at the world, there's only one thing to say, and it's Hallelujah. That's the way it is.” — Leonard Cohen

HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is a definitive exploration of singersongwriter Leonard Cohen as seen through the prism of his internationally renowned hymn, “Hallelujah.” This feature-length documentary weaves together three creative strands: The songwriter and his times; the song’s dramatic journey from record label reject to chart-topping hit; and moving testim

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