24 Lies a Second: A Singer and a Song

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A Singer and a Song

I have a certain grammatical inclination – I'd say it was an interest but it's really more of a complex – and it struck me just the other day that there are lots of films with titles that are just made up of nouns, and quite a few with titles where the only thing you'll find are verbs. Apart from the occasional quirky exception, though, these tend to be films with reasonably short titles. With a longer title, you're really heading into the realm of the sentence, with all the associated baggage that comes with that – articles, conjunctions, maybe even punctuation. And prepositions, of course – if you want to do a movie with a long name, you're probably looking at most of these things.

And so the first thing that struck me about Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, is just how unwieldy a title that is (I'll be referring to it simply as Hallelujah from this point on, hope that's okay). I mean, it kind of does the job of telling you what the movie is about, but does it trip off the tongue? I put it to you that it does not.

Still, being clumsily on-the-nose is a bit like underestimating the intelligence of the average viewer, it's not a brilliant thing to do but it's not going to cost you money, either – the last documentary about Leonard Cohen went for a much more oblique title, to the point where it wasn't immediately clear who and what it was about. It's a hard life in the documentary business sometimes, especially as people seem to be running out of things to make films about – this is the second Cohen documentary in three years, while 2022 has also seen two films about the same pair of married French vulcanologists. (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary from a few years back kind of addressed this issue, also obliquely. (I think we're going to be using the word 'oblique' a lot today.))

So this Leonard Cohen guy must be pretty famous if everyone keeps making documentaries about him! Constant reader, I take nothing for granted – I'm sure you're extremely well versed (and indeed chorused) in everything from Death of a Ladies Man to You Want It Darker, but there may be people happening by here who aren't, so: Leonard Cohen, scion of a wealthy Canadian family, first rising to fame in the sixties as a novelist, poet, and eventually singer, and probably one of the most unlikely people ever to become a massive influence on pop music.

This film's way of carving out a niche in the somewhat crowded Leonard Cohenomentary market (there have been many, some dating back to the mid sixties – also an appearance in Miami Vice as a French crime lord, which I bet you didn't know about, but on the other hand Bruce Forsyth was once in an episode of Magnum and no-one ever mentions that, either) is to present itself more as a kind of biography of one of Cohen's songs, for which a certain amount of biographical detail on the singer himself is required. Which song? Well, as you will know if you've been paying attention, it's Hallelujah, the inescapable blues-gospel-spiritual-rock song which has become as much of a standard as any other of the last forty years.

To be honest, Cohen is such an interesting figure – erudite, thoughtful, charismatic, witty – that this particular bit of framing probably wasn't necessary, and the story of the first twenty years or so of his music career (pre-Hallelujah) is engaging in its own right, touching on classic themes of struggles against adversity and to retain artistic integrity. Is there a sense in which you are waiting for the moment where Cohen sits down and thinks, 'You know what, it'd be a good idea to write a song about...'? Well, maybe, but only very mildly.

You will have noted that I just skipped over the whole question of what Hallelujah is actually about: so does the film, and key contributor John Lissauer (who arranged the original version of the song) reveals he never asked Cohen this question either. You'd expect it to be about something, given it took Cohen seven years to write it, producing somewhere in the region of 160 verses in the process – but perhaps the obliqueness of the song, the ambiguity of it and the contradiction it embodies (it's a very downbeat song to be named after what's traditionally a cry of joy) are partly why it has acquired such a status in modern culture – you can project anything onto the song, interpret it however you like, deploy it in any situation, and it will always somehow feel appropriate.

Once Cohen has finally written and recorded the song, the singer himself yields the focus of the film to his creation for a while, as it considers its long, inexorable rise, mainly due to it being covered by other people – Bob Dylan, John Cale, and especially Jeff Buckley (who may owe his particular influence – many people still think it's a Jeff Buckley song – to the fact his was the first version in general circulation by someone who could sing in the conventional sense of the word). Then came the unlikely springboard presented by the song's presence on the soundtrack of the first Shrek movie, endless versions done by TV talent show hopefuls, and so on.

This, as you have probably guessed, is not a movie for anyone who doesn't like Hallelujah. Even if you're only mildly ambivalent about it, this may not be the movie for you, as watching it will involve listening to about forty different performances of just this one song (not all in full, but even so). There are obviously many different Cohen renditions, of the original Old Testament version, the later 'secular' version, and finally a kind of 'fusion' version, but also covers by John Cale, Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Brandi Carlile, people off The X Factor, someone singing it to her husband at their wedding (yes, this is a bit of an 'eep' moment), and so on.

(One striking omission (from the film as released, anyway) is the version done by Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, on the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election. Close scrutiny of the credits reveals that both McKinnon and the SNL writers are thanked for their participation, so I guess they either ended up on the cutting room floor, or – hopefully – as a DVD extra.)

The structure of the film is helped by the fact that Cohen himself essentially dropped out of sight for six years in the 1990s, just as the song was becoming known, spending the time in a Zen monastery in California (I'm tempted to add 'as you do'). The image of him finally returning to society, suitcase in hand, only to discover one of his songs has become so ubiquitous in his absence, is an almost irresistible one, but not much dwelt on by the movie – the directors seem more interested in the fact that Cohen was forced to go back out on tour after his business manager ran away with all his money (I think this may be the kind of thing that happens if you spend six years in a Zen monastery, to be honest). Still, the film ends with the singer at peace, or at least as close to it as someone like Leonard Cohen ever gets, and presumably living very well off the royalties of a song which is so widely
beloved.

Do you have to be particularly interested in Leonard Cohen or this song to enjoy the documentary? I don't think so – though that would certainly not hurt. It's a curious tale of slow-burning triumph, both for the song and its creator – there aren't really any formal innovations or oddities here, just a straightforward telling of the story. But it's a good enough story and much more than a good enough song to be a very engaging and satisfying watch.

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