Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song REVIEW
REBEKAH DAVIES reviews a fascinating but problematic film about a songwriting genius and a song covered to the point of meaninglessness.
Some people are tremendously difficult to capture in the biographical form. I would include the poet, writer, and songwriter Leonard Cohen among such beings. Sylvie Simmon’s exhaustive biography was heavy with factual anomalies, and strangely detailed descriptions of recording sessions which, let’s face it, are train-spotter gibberish to the non-musician unless you are a completist of epic proportions.
Still, what do you hope to learn about an artist who has changed your life? How many filmmakers ask themselves this question, and effectively answer it in that form?
I may be in the minority, however, as I found Marianne & Leonard: Words Of Love (2019) one of the most contrived and weak attempts to depict a ‘great’ romance lived by two people ever committed to screen. This new film, Hallelujah: A Journey, A Song has a tendency to be epically schmaltzy in parts also, and it leans towards the same banality, sadly.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey at times devalues the life and work of a man who contributed something truly unique to the canon of prose and musical poetry. I’m not sure Leonard Cohen ever called himself a musician, nor wanted to be. Which is what I feel makes him one of the most authentic and truly captivating performing artists to spring from the bones of the counter-culture, in which he found his start as a writer.
This film is hugely tangential, which is fine: we’re talking about a person who lived a full, non-linear life in which art was sometimes secondary, or not even prominent at all. However, I cannot abide by the horrifying 10 minutes in which the cultural appropriation of his song ‘Hallelujah’ is shown, in grotesque glorification, on gruesome television talent shows that dumb down the masses night by night, and indeed — in the process — the intent of this musical offering.
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‘Hallelujah’ is a song that never really had an agenda. It took him years to write it, notebooks and notebooks full of musings: a journey. This is not a song, this is a reaching, a yearning to understand the very underpinnings of existence. ‘Hallelujah’, the song, is not some sweet paean to spiritual inquiry, it’s a fluid life’s work. He got most of the way there after a lot – a lot – of soul searching. And patience.
One of the things the film gets right is the acknowledgement of Cohen’s lifelong, innate discipline, in many areas of his life. Striking is his lack of ego: professionally, and seemingly personally, or at least the desire to supersede that. Sure, as performers, we all get particular about how our work is presented and distributed. But I never felt that was the point with Cohen.
Luckily, an exquisite mix of artists picked up the mantle and chose to embody the song further. I refer to John Cale and Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright too. No others come to mind.
Even when his personal assistant embezzled every cent he’d ever made, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps, recorded more music, and went out on the road. Let that be his artist’s legacy; his desire to not only right the wrongs of being criminally dispossessed, but transforming that into light, the pure light of artistry and resilience. He seemed to enjoy being a recording and performing artist in his twilight years. With all of his being. Fully.
That’s how I’m going to remember him.
* Check the NZIFF website for screening times around NZ.