There is a meditative quality that immerses itself within the bones of Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's mighty fine Sony Classics feature doc Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.
This is a sure sign that Geller and Goldfine have captured the spiritual essence of Cohen, a spiritual and symphonic master whose greatest hit, Hallelujah, has nearly always existed in its own musical space somewhere between sexual pick-me-up and Gregorian chant. If you want to be exclusively entertained, Hallelujah will likely disappointed as this is a film less concerned with idolatry than it is a sort of communal worship experience of sorts.
The most passionate of Cohen's fans will likely not learn much new in Hallelujah, though much like a Cohen concert this is a film more about the experience of Cohen than any particularly new revelations. Those newer Cohen, or those who know Cohen exclusively through Hallelujah, will find more to appreciate here though it's worth noting that this just shy of two-hour documentary is much less a traditional biopic and far more a celebration of the iconic experience that is Hallelujah.
Interestingly, Cohen himself was no longer giving interviews as Geller and Goldfine began working on Hallelujah. Cohen passed away in 2016 at the age of 82, a nearly 50-year career as a singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist equally matched by Cohen's relentless spiritual seeking that included a 1994 retreat to Mt. Baldy Zen Center where he would become an ordained Zen Buddhist Monk. Yet, Geller and Goldfine have been able to work with Cohen manager Robert Kory, with Cohen's blessing in 2014, to build the spiritual mountain of symphonic mastery that is Leonard Cohen.
The final result is one of the year's most unique and engaging music documentaries.
The first third of Hallelujah is a more traditional biopic that lays the groundwork for our appreciation of the life that brought us Hallelujah. It's that delicate balance between tellign the story of the Canadian Cohen's life, especially through the 90s, that becomes one of the biggest challenges within Hallelujah. At times, it feels like Geller and Goldfine realize they've got dueling narratives here that need to peacefully co-exist for the film to succeed. We need to understand Cohen's life, but if we're being honest we're actually here for the song.
For the most part, Hallelujah finds that balance but there are times I found myself longing for a little tighter film that packs the emotional resonance of the film's final third including what may very well be the film's musical highlight - K.D. Lang's remarkable version of Hallelujah performed at Cohen's 2016 memorial service. Indeed, it is likely true that as much as we love Cohen's Hallelujah we may very well remember the song even more because of John Cale's groundbreaking version in Shrek, Rufus Wainwright's Shrek soundtrack version, or my most familiar version being that by the late Jeff Buckley.
Truthfully, I'm not sure I've heard a widely released version of Hallelujah that didn't just stop me in my tracks. It may be one song that not even an American Idol singer could ruin.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, is the meditative, spiritual experience that Cohen deserves and that Cohen's most passionate fans will appreciate. Currently on a limited nationwide release, Hallelujah will have you, like it did me, spending hours compiling your Leonard Cohen playlist and immersing yourself in his brilliantly worded stories about religion, politics, depression, sexuality, and this thing we call life.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic