erik lundegaard


Monday July 08, 2024

Movie Review: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song (2021)


After my brother’s death last November I looked for ways to get through the days with less pain. The music of Leonard Cohen, I found, helped: that deep Old Testament voice, spiritually weary but spirtually seeking, trying to touch the eternal but settling for (or being distracted by) a beautiful woman. Then I found this doc and kept returning to it. I couldn’t watch much but I could watch this. I’ll always be grateful for it.

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” is a clunky title but an accurate one. It’s half Cohen’s journey, half his song’s journey, and both journeys contain astonishments.

His music career, for example, began late, at age 32, in 1967—the very year his potential audience was shouting not to trust anyone over 30. But “Hallelujah” has even greater astonishments. I didn’t know that the album it was on, “Various Positions,” wasn’t even released in the U.S. His label, Columbia Records, paid to have it made, but then its president, Walter Yetnikoff, thought so little of it, and of Cohen, that they didn’t put it out. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” Cohen quotes Yetnikoff saying, “but we don’t know if you’re any good.” And there went that. The album, and the song, were buried.

Who unearthed it? The answer to that is less astonishing. You hear it and go, “Oh, of course.” 

Eight years
I’ve recounted my own history with Cohen and “Hallelujah” but here it is again.

In 1997, I was watching Julian Schnabel’s “Basquiat” on VHS, and over the closing credits a song played, and something about it stirred something in me. I loved the melody but it was also these lines:

There was a time you’d let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

And these lines:

Maybe there’s a god above
All I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya

So I rewound the tape and listened to it again. And again. And then I searched the credits for the singer.

“I heard this great song last night,” I said to my colleague Jeff V. in the University Book Store warehouse the next day. “It was called ‘Hallelujah’ by John Cale.”

“Cale’s great,” Jeff, a local musician, told me, “but that’s a Leonard Cohen song.” Then he led me to the music dept. downstairs and showed me the Cohen collection. I think I bought two CDs—including “Various Positions.”

The doc, written and directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, goes into how long Cohen worked on the song and how many verses it might’ve had. 150? 180? They retell that great story of Cohen and Bob Dylan comparing notes in Paris. Bob complimented Leonard on “Hallelujah” and asked how long it took to write, and Leonard lied a little, undercut it a little, and said it took a few years. Then Leonard complimented Dylan on “I and I” off of “Infidels” and asked how long it took. “About 15 minutes,” Dylan replied.

Glen Hansard objects to Bob’s line, saying “Come down to earth,” or some such, but I love that story. It’s so Bob. It’s so both of them. Genius comes in all forms, and we talk about the Dylan type more often because it’s more mystical. It’s a lightning bolt, or, per Scorsese’s doc, tapping into the collective unconscious. Cohen just grinds it out. “Sometimes I think that I would go along with the old Beat philosophy: ‘First thought, best thought,’” Cohen says here. “But it never worked for me. There hardly is a first thought. It’s all sweat.”

He was a scion of Montreal wealth, and the grandson of a Talmudic scholar, who went into the arts. Why the shift from poetry to music in his early 30s? Because he saw that’s where the action was? The doc doesn’t really explore it.

He seems both hugely thoughtful (about existential matters) and fairly thoughtless (in some of his relationships). In the early 1970s, for example, he began to collaborate with producer John Lissauer, and they put out a great album with a great title: “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”; and then Cohen asked to collaborate with him—Lissauer writing music to Cohen’s lyrics—and they came up with eight or so songs for an album to be called “Songs for Rebecca.” Lissauer recounts, more amused than angry: “And he said, ‘All right, I’m going to go to Hydra for a couple of weeks to work on a book of poetry. I’ll call you when I get back and we’ll finish up.’ And I didn’t hear from him … for eight years.”

At least now I know why Cohen's next album, “Death of a Ladies Man,” never clicked for me. It was produced by Phil Spector, still pushing his wall of sound, and he was all wrong for Cohen. “Oh, the album is a disaster,” Cohen told an interviewer back then.

Did Cohen’s manager, Marty Machat, push Leonard toward Spector? It’s revealed Machat didn’t like Lissauer, so maybe, but either way Cohen returned to Lissauer for “Various Positions.” The album includes not just “Hallelujah” but “Dance Me to the End of Live” and “Night Comes On” (a personal favorite), but in the wake of the Columbia snub Lissauer got blamed. “It was like The Twilight Zone for me,” he says. “You do something you’re absolutely sure is one thing, and someone else sees it as reversed as possible. … I said, ‘Boy, I must have no sense of the music world: to be this wrong.’”

And Columbia buried “Various Positions” and with it “Hallelujah.” So who unearthed it?

Bob Dylan, of course. He recognized the genius of the song and began to play it in concert. Then Cohen went on tour and played it—with more secular verses. Then a tribute album was made in 1990, and for that John Cale chose to do “Hallelujah,” mixing the religious and secular verses. I still think Cale’s version is the best.

In the 1990s, Jeff Buckley did his cover, which was a mild hit, and in the early 2000s the Cale version was included in the movie “Shrek,” while a new Rufus Wainwright version was included on its soundtrack. Which got it out among the masses.

And that’s what really broke it. Both ways. There’s a hilarious montage of people on “American Idol” and “Britain’s Got Talent” singing their soaring, crap versions of “Hallelujah.” Apparently someone named Alexandra Burke won “X Factor” in Britain with her version of the song, and it was suddenly everywhere on the British pop charts. In one week, three different versions appeared in the Top 40: Burke’s at No. 1, Buckley’s at No. 2, and Cohen’s original from 1984, the one Columbia Records wholly rejected, charting at No. 36.

“There’s a certain mild sense of revenge that arose in my heart,” the aged Cohen says about this 11th-hour success. Then he adds, with a beautiful smile, “But I think people ought to stop singing it for a little while.”

His friend, music journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, thinks he’s joking. I’m not so sure. Go on YouTube, type in “Hallelujah,” and the first versions the algorithm picks are by Pentatonix and Burke. Who’s Lucy Thomas? Her version has 47m views. Zack Snyder used it nonsensically during an awful moment in his awful “Watchmen” movie, and the doc includes Eric Church talking about playing his crap version at Red Rocks. People die somewhere and it’s trotted out yet again. Just stop already. Or pause. Pause and see what else might work.

White man dancing
You know what’s missing from the doc? A name.

In the 1990s, Cohen ascended Mount Baldy outside LA and spent six years in a Zen monastery, where, along with trying to get right with himself, he wrote songs like “Anthem.” Then he came back and began recording again. And in the 2000s he was ripped off. He tried to take money out of the ATM and found he didn’t have any. His business manager had embezzled everything.

That’s the name the doc doesn’t mention: Kelley Lynch. Why don’t they name her? And why did Cohen hire her? And give her such access? And which songs of his did she sign away? The doc merely says this gave him impetus to go on perpetual tour in the 2000s—he needed money—but it doesn’t mention that he sued her in 2005, won a $9.5 million judgment (which she never paid), and which led to harassment. She sent him long abusive voicemails and emails, telling him he was sick and needed “to be taken out and shot.” She kept threatening his life. So in 2012 she was criminally prosecuted and sentenced to 18 months. I don’t know. Feels like that should be in here. Cohen’s post-trial comments alone are worth it:

“I want to thank the defendant Ms. Kelley Lynch for insisting on a jury trial, thus allowing the court to observe her profoundly unwholesome, obscene and relentless strategies to escape the consequences of her wrongdoing. … It is my prayer that Ms. Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

Cohen died Nov. 7, 2016, the day before Donald Trump was elected president, and I like to think he saw where we were going and opted out. He’d already laid it out for us in his song “The Future” from 1992:

There’ll be a breaking of the ancient Western code
Your private life will suddenly explode
There’ll be phantoms there’ll be fires on the road
And the white man dancing 

That's not singing “Hallelujah” but it ain't wrong, either.

Posted at 07:28 AM on Monday July 08, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2021