Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 28, 2022 8:33 pm 
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A modern anthem and the career behind it

Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s respectful doc tells the story of the artist from his beginnings as a dilettantish but highly creative young man from a comfortably off and orthodox Jewish Montreal family through the life of his 1984 song," by turns a modern prayer, symbolist poem and divine gift," "Hallelujah." Cohen''s songs are anthems, and this is the anthem of anthems. To listen to Jeff Buckley's famous 1994 cover, based on John Cale's, in his seminal album Grace, is to be irresistibly reduced to tears, time after time - whether you like Leonard Cohen or not. What a songster Buckley was. What a voice, and how effortlessly he produced subtleties with it. But that is completed by superb, sonorous guitar playing, also by Jeff. The only trouble is that ever since musicians and audience members can forget the song's Cohen's, not Buckley's. Buckley's seen saying he'd rather Cohen didn't hear his rendition because it sounds "like a boy's song." And one thing the deep-voiced Cohen, who didn't sing till he was in his thirties, was not, was a boy singer.

The original Cohen album in which "Hallelujah" came was called Various Positions. The album did not come out in the US becaause the head of Columbia Records at that time, a man named Yetnikoff, did not like it. He did not like Leonard's suit. He did not like the mix. Leonard said to mix it himself, but he did not. Eventually they got a tiny label, Passport Records, to issue it.

There is some nice talk in this pleasant film about composition, between the seven years it took "Hallelujah" and Dylan's claim that he wrote "I and I" from Infidels, which Cohen admired, in fifteen minutes in the back of a cab. Cohen is shown saying "If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often."

The riches of "Hallelujah" show up in its having an initial religious version and then a whole other secular, sexy one which takes the meaning of the word "hallelujah," hail to God, into something more like "yippee!" But the other riches come from how the song began squelched by not getting a big US record release, then Cohen singing it with more and more new verses, and then with John Cale of the Velvet Underground solo with piano singing it with a selected mix of religious and secular verses. Then Bob Dylan sang it. And the immensity of this song's chameleonic virtues emerges in the dozens of name singers who have done covers of it, though none can reach Buckley's quietly transcendent rendition.

In other words, this film wasn't a dumb idea.

Some of the excerpted cover performances from Myles Kennedy, Bono, Brandi Carlyle, and others are accompanied by their two cents about what the song means. We see The Voice and The X Factor stages full of "Hallelulah" performers, one so stirring, her version winds up on the charts at #1, with Jeff Buckley's at #2 and Cohen's own at #36, revenge of a sort, Cohen says, for the company bigwigs who wouldn't publish the original record. Here we start to see the power an anthem has sung before thousands: "Hallelujah" has taken on a life of its own. And hearing such a song at night between two great rocks in a huge crowd and perhaps singing along is an intense collectivity and, perhaps, spirituality.

This film that taps many voices and samples the charm and wit and gentlemanly politeness in performance of its subject, still does not escape conventions of the documentary biography format, such as heavy reliance on certain talking heads, first among them writer Larry Sloman, who has known Cohen even since he was a Rolling Stone reporter in 1974. An interesting one is the glamorous French fashion photographer Dominique Isserman, who became a girlfriend of Cohen and remained close. Another, Judy Collins. BUt while I was swept away in the final segment, couched as an "Epilogue," about Cohen's remarkable late flowering of creativity and performing all over the world ages 70 to 79, the tone for some may seem overly adulatory: one must listen to Screen Daily's Wendy Ide when she finds this film "contemplative, searching and stripped back" but also "navel gazing, ponderous and very slow." In short, it's for the enthusiastic newcomer like me, or for the fans. As an assessment and as a rounded picture of the man, it may be considered incomplete and unreliable. As an enticing calling card for newcomers, it's aces.


Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, 115 mins., debuted Sept. 2, 2021 at Telluride, playing also at Venice, Ghent, Vienna, Amsterdam, Copenhagen (CPH:DOC), Toronto, Berlin and Sundance. Its US theatrical release will be heralded by a Tribeca showing Jun. 12 and 14, 2022. Metacritic rating: 63%. Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in select theaters Jul. 1, 2022.


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