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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song review – fascinating deconstruction of musical immortality

This insightful doc goes deep on the singer-songwriter's most famous tune in a bid to uncover the cause of its wider appeal

It’s a ballsy move to create an entire documentary based entirely around a song that isn’t even the best on its parent album, yet that’s what the directors of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song have attempted to do. This is as much a documentary about the song itself – and the strange afterlife it’s been given courtesy of a million air-head X Factor contestants whose first decision is to turn to histrionics (even when the song’s original version is comparatively dry and restrained) – as it is about Cohen himself, tracking how his creative life both shaped the song’s famously overlong genesis (seven years of writing and re-writing!) and how the song eventually shaped his later career in return.

This is done through the standard music documentary format, with a rich array of archival material and a generally knowledgeable array of talking heads (generally, because the sections on the song’s mass popular afterlife include a lot of vague waffle on what exactly the song means). The most revealing sections revel in that archival material, highlighting Cohen’s close partnership with his collaborators (including Judy Collins, who first helped to nudge him into the spotlight; Sharon Robinson, his long-term co-writer; and John Lissauer, producer of Various Positions, on which “Hallelujah” appeared), as well as Larry “Ratso” Slim, a music journalist whose treasure trove of interviews with Cohen is put to frequent use by the filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.

Being his most famous song (with only “Suzanne” coming close to cultural permeability), “Hallelujah” has had the effect of ossifying the singer-songwriter’s image as a sombre, ultra-serious poet of God and love. That’s an image that disappears as soon as you take a dip through Cohen’s back catalogue, where you’ll find the acerbic wisecracker and wry aged jester-philosopher: the documentary exists in a strange space where it seems to constantly want to affirm this priestlike visage via praise from other talking heads, but Cohen continually rejects in the archival material here. He is continually deadpan and funny, always a few steps ahead of the interviewer, but simultaneously gracious and generous with his answers.

In one hilarious moment from an interview in the late 2000s – after the documentary has taken a long detour to capture the song’s arduous journey to popular consciousness via Jeff Buckley’s softboi version, its inclusion on the Shrek soundtrack (a real watershed moment for 21st century popular culture) and then a montage of butcherings on talent shows worldwide – Cohen says: “I think people oughta stop singing it for a little while.” In another interview, Cohen talks about how irreconcilable contradictions are at the centre of a writer’s life, with his work an attempt to reconcile those differences, phrased in a way that suggests this afterlife is part of the song’s allure.

It's interesting how little the documentary also tackles these inherent contradictions itself, with the editing pulling us one way – that of a hagiographic mystical song in which people find whatever emotional outpouring they’re looking for – but the recorded material clearly showing something more conflicted. And yet, in spite of all that, there’s still something magical about Cohen’s presence, even posthumously: the archival material is rich in insight, providing a fascinating journey into the process of a single song, its writer, and the wider cultural impact of both.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song is released in UK cinemas on 16 September.

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