Film Review: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

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When news of Leonard Cohen’s death reached the world in November 2016, there was only one way, musically, for all of us to respond. He played on every radio, every report, every tribute to the musical genius of man. Kate McKinnon performed it on Saturday Night Live, kd lang at the official memorial concert. Ordinary Montrealers raised their voices in song outside Cohen’s home. It was Alleluia.

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A new documentary from Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine is ostensibly the story behind that song, but it also takes enough account of the famous troubadour’s life to give the whole thing just the right amount of context. Among other things, we learn that Cohen worked on Alleluia for many years, writing multiple verses — more than 150, according to music journalist Larry Sloman — as he struggled to balance his competing themes of physical desire and spirituality.

But the most fascinating aspect of Alleluia that’s how long it took to find an audience. When Cohen first recorded it in 1984 for his album Various positions, Walter Yetnikoff of Columbia Records refused to release it in America. According to Cohen, Yetnikoff told him, “Leonard, we know you’re great but we don’t know if you’re good. As for the fate of Alleluia, he said at the time: “I feel that I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me. My domain will grow and my name will flourish.

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Luckily, he didn’t have to wait that long. Welsh musician John Cale of the Velvet Underground has released a cover of Alleluia in 1991. It inspired American singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley to do his own cover, which up-and-coming musician Brandi Carlile listened to on repeat while falling asleep. Cale’s version appeared in the 2001 film Shrekalthough most people associate the film with the Rufus Wainwright cover, which was released on the soundtrack.

Cohen often appears in old interviews, but we also hear from people such as friend and former CBC reporter Adrienne Clarkson; fellow singer/songwriter Judy Collins, whose cover of Susanna helped publicize Cohen as a songwriter; and John Lissauer, who arranged and produced Alleluia with Cohen, and said he never delved too deeply into the lyrics, preferring to feel the song rather than analyze it. “He has to explain himself. »

But we will leave the last word to Cohen, who said he was unable to explain the ultimate genesis of Alleluia, indeed of most of his musical work. “If I knew where the songs came from, I would go there more often. »

Hallelujah opens July 15 in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, with more cities to follow.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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