A movie about a song — I’m thinking if it weren’t Canadian icon Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, it probably wouldn’t fly.
There’s already a book entirely about the song, The Holy or the Broken; and now Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song documents how his composition, considered unreleasable by his record company in the 1980s, became one of the most ubiquitous songs of the early 21st Century.
After the rejection by Columbia Records, Hallelujah faded into obscurity and, ironically, only gained awareness when other artists recorded it. Then, in 2001, the makers of the top-selling animated movie Shrek used it on their soundtrack (sung by Canadian artist Rufus Wainwright), expanding the song’s popularity to a wider audience. Hallelujah then became a hit for Cohen himself, sparking a late career revival for him.
The origins of Hallelujah and how it became representative of Cohen’s life, music and lifelong spiritual search are the focus of the documentary.
Quebec-born Cohen’s work is rooted in poetry and literature because he studied as a poet and novelist first. In his 30s, while he was promoting one of his books, on Canadian TV, he offered to sing a song. That debut and other previously unseen archival material from his radio and TV interviews are included, as well as old concert footage from various periods of his career, including on his final tour, which show him as he aged and sang Hallelujah with different feelings and different verses. Cohen never stopped working on himself or the song, labouring for years on the lyrics, and is said to have written something like 150 different verses to it. We’re also treated to snippets of 22 of Cohen’s other songs, which gives an appreciation for the incredible scope of his work.
There are conversations with people who played an important role in Cohen’s life and the creation of Hallelujah, singers who have covered it, and the producers also talk to regular people about how this song has been there in their lives, and what it is that connects so powerfully to them.
Through it all we understand more about Leonard Cohen and his amusement that the song that was rejected went on to become his signature song. Cohen’s version didn’t register on the Billboard charts until his death in 2016 at 82, but the popularity of Hallelujah continues years after his death.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song plays at the Salmar Classic at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17.
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