'Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song' Traces the Meandering Path to Creation

Leonard Cohen sits on a chair with a cat behind him.
A publicity still of Leonard Cohen from Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.

Each year, at least a handful of musicians become the subject of a biopic or biographical documentary, but how many songs can claim an entire movie dedicated to them? Leonard Cohen's sublime hymn, "Hallelujah," gains the honor in this documentary by co-directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Based on a book entitled The Holy or the Broken by music journalist Alan Light, the film boldly asserts that the key to understanding Leonard Cohen's entire career lies in close examination of the song's winding path. A must-see feast for every Leonard Cohen fan, Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is also a statement on art and how all great art must take on a life of its own.

Perhaps you remember the first time you heard of Leonard Cohen? I certainly do. I was over at a friend's house, and we watched Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, essentially one long tribute concert interspersed by interview footage. At the time Cohen appeared in this film, he was 71 years old. What grabbed my attention the most was that voice – that deep chocolatey velvet voice. Atonal as Bob Dylan but sonorous in its own way, I would pay to listen to Leonard Cohen read canned food labels.

A Woman in a black dress sits by a piano
A publicity still of Joan Collins from Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.
Perhaps you remember the first time you heard "Hallelujah." More than likely, the voice you heard was not Leonard Cohen's. Like many Generations Xers, my first exposure to the song came courtesy of Jeff Buckley from the Grace album. Millennials may have experienced the medley for the first time as part of the movie Shrek in 2001 and argued over which was better – the John Cale version in the movie or the Rufus Wainwright version on the soundtrack (the full details are shared in the documentary). "Hallelujah" can even serve as a worship song, as long as the non-sexual verses are the ones that make it into the Powerpoint deck.

After a brief clip of Cohen singing the ballad at a 2013 concert, the camera cuts to 29 years later, when he first recorded the song in 1984 for the Various Positions album. Leonard Cohen started his career later in life and, at the time of the 1984 video, he was 50 years old. The camera then settles in at a cozy cafe, where Larry 'Ratso' Sloman, then a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed Leonard Cohen in 1992. These quick nonlinear jumps through time prepare viewers for what is to come – a scrapbook of memories curated from interviews, live performances, photographs, and never-before-seen footage from the Cohen Trust. While the overall march through these events follows a chronological path, sometimes the story jumps back or forward decades, taking a meandering approach to storytelling, which mirrors the way a poet and troubadour like Cohen seems to view time.

A man in black shirt sings at a microphone
A publicity still of of Jeff Buckley from Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.

Goldfine and Geller spoon out information in three loose sections. The first section traces Cohen's struggle to get the correct combination of elements down on paper. All told, he drafted around 80 versions of the tune and 150 possible verses. We meet artists he toured with and those who helped him record the Various Positions album. Sony chose not to release the album, and so the song lived in purgatory for a bit. But perhaps this delay is the thing responsible for the song's success. Cohen continued revising and changing the lyrics. Then the true magic happened. Artists began to perform their own versions of the song at concerts. Like a melodic game of telephone, each musician adds their unique style to the song, choosing the lyrics that fit their purpose. The many performers who have folded "Hallelujah" into their catalog make up the second portion of the film. Viewers appreciate how "Hallelujah" transcends past Leonard Cohen and becomes its own entity. In the final segment, Cohen goes on his world tour and finally gets to enjoy the fame he earned. Cohen ends where the movie begins – on stage, during the time when I first laid eyes on him.

A girl in a plaid shirt and red hat
A publicity still of Brandi Carlile from Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.

A Journey, A Song uses Cohen's struggle with "Hallelujah" as a microcosm to explain his whole career. He jots down thoughts and writes, crosses out, and revises. The song became his magnum opus – the thing he couldn't quite get right. But all of this invention and reinvention allowed it to spread like a virus. The documentary demonstrates the grueling, sometimes defeating work of artists behind the scenes.

Like Cohen's career, this documentary takes a meandering approach to storytelling. Viewers might wonder why there are so many detours on the way. We learn about Cohen's lovers, his stint at a Buddhist monastery, and his awkward entry into live performances. Like he did with "Hallelujah," Cohen continues to poke, prod, and struggle throughout his career. He transcends boundaries to become something other than an ordinary singer or songwriter. This movie, the song "Hallelujah", and Cohen may not always move with evident purpose, but the results end in the realm of the divine. This documentary is a must-see for contemporary music fans and lovers of art in all its forms.

Release info: In select theaters August 5, 2022

Final score: 4 out of 5