« Hallelujah », genesis and coronation of Leonardo Cohen’s masterpiece

This is the story of a song that has become famous. And, through it, of its designer. This is a welcome angle that contrasts with the linearity of biographical documentaries and their strings of speakers wielding hyperbole and the superlative. That is, therefore, “Hallelujah”, a song recorded by Léonard Cohen in 1984, pivot of a career inaugurated in 1967 and whose fame did not stop growing as it passed from mouth to mouth. Pivot, « Hallelujah » is in more ways than one. The song has dethroned in the collective memory the « Suzanne » and other « So Long, Marianne », Cohen’s first successes. It is still so for the troubadour who composed it as he approached fifty. The title, finally, picks up his obsessions, between faith and the flesh, divine and sexual ecstasy.

The story… of a failure

By building their documentary around this masterpiece, Dan Geller and Dyana Goldfine tell a lesser-known story within history, which is that of a first failure. The song was released in 1984 on the album “Various Positions”. The fashion is for busy productions and producer John Lissaeur, amply interviewed here, will let himself be taken in. So we won’t blame anyone for having neglected this album with synth pads weighed down by gospel choirs and a hypertrophied bass. In the middle, there remain some of the most brilliant texts by their author, including “Hallelujah”, a subtly versified biblical-sexual metaphor. The documentary points to the lack of flair of the CEO of Columbia, the artist’s label, who, obsessed with the smell of money, refuses to distribute the album in the United States. Way to sideline an old-fashioned Cohen who will only be half offended by it: he will always have been the eldest, the old man of the band, out of fashion and out of style.

The song therefore finds itself lost in limbo, if it weren’t for the conductor’s surprise: the magic of the editing, Bob Dylan, from the “Born Again” period, appears like the Messiah. He was the first, an admirer of Cohen, who brought the song back to life by performing it on stage. It will then be necessary to wait for John Cale, the founder of the Velvet Underground, to restore it to its pure state, piano-voice, ready to blend into new arrangements. His version will be the matrix of hundreds of others, including the famous comet Jeff Buckley, which is shown to us as Rimbaldian, hairless and illuminated, before its fatal drowning. She will then appear in the soundtrack of the animated film « Shrek », by the voice of Rufus Wainwright. The success is colossal, and the song becomes a must seasoned with all the sauces and sprinkled with all the sugars, in telecrochets as in funeral ceremonies.

Rich in archival images, “Hallelujah, the words of Leonard Cohen” takes us on a long crescendo to this climax, a synthesis of the poetic research of a tortured artist, plagued by chronic depression and deeply attached to Judaism. Exhibited are the many notebooks in which Cohen scribbled dozens of verses, mostly unpublished, of this legendary song that he took seven long years to refine, showing the humble work of the poet-musician.


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