Reviewed by: Meredith McGrane
Leonard Cohen was a poet turned novelist turned singer-songwriter. A Jewish Canadian who spent time in a Zen monastery, he performed and released records from the 1960s until three weeks before his death in 2016. He was a spiritual seeker, in love with the creative process. And he wrote a song, once rejected by Columbia Records, that has transcended time, age, religion, and genre to become one of the most powerful, resonant, connecting, and universal songs of our time. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah!
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song was released on Netflix in January 2023. The documentary presents like a conversation, which feels as intimate as Cohen’s poetic lyrics. It weaves a spiritual path for Cohen, and the viewer meanders along. But mostly the film reflects on the seven-year journey to writing the song “Hallelujah,” while also speaking to its evolution from record label reject to cover song hit (from artists like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright) to a truly timeless and universal ballad.
The film also serves to inspire! Cohen, who started writing songs around age 30, reaching commercial success in his 40s, and singing at Coachella in his 70s, teaches us that it’s never too late to start…anything. He was a man deep into his creative process, bringing pen to paper in illegible scratches, and spent seven years writing “Hallelujah.” Also teaching us to never give up.
Cohen’s vast body of musical wonderment (and the song “Hallelujah” itself) sings with the vignettes of life and the philosophies of the artist’s heart and mind and is truly poetry set to music. In the film, Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often.” But it’s hearing artist after artist, through the decades, and posthumously in a Leonard Cohen memorial concert, all singing this song, “Hallelujah,” that reminds the viewer of how transcendent one song can become.
“And every breath we drew was, Hallelujah.” Indeed it was, Leonard.