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Front Row Seat: 'Hallelujah' documentary celebrates Leonard Cohen's classic song

A film coming to Duluth's Zeitgeist Zinema looks at the late singer-songwriter's career through the lens of a song that's moved millions.

Leonard Cohen performs onstage in a suit and hat, clutching a microphone and singing passionately as a guitarist, out of focus, plays and sings in the background.
Leonard Cohen lived to see his initially underappreciated song "Hallelujah" become embraced around the world.
Contributed / Leonard Cohen Family Trust / Sony Pictures Classics
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DULUTH — Can a sacred song include a verse about getting tied to a kitchen chair?

That's the question posed by a new documentary about "Hallelujah," the globally beloved Leonard Cohen song. The song functions as a prayer, filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine argue, even if it's hardly a conventional one.

The two-hour movie, which opens Friday at Duluth's Zeitgeist Zinema, tracks Cohen's career through the lens of a song that's broken free to become "its own thing now," singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile says in the documentary. "It's its own person, and it has its own life."

Eight years in the making, "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song" takes its framework from a 2012 book by Alan Light, "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" In addition to interviews with Cohen's collaborators and friends, Geller and Goldfine draw on the artist's extensive notebooks.

Cohen, who died in 2016 at 82, took several years to write "Hallelujah" — penning, by his own account, over 150 verses — and lived to see the song become a sensation. That afforded "a mild sense of revenge" for the songwriter, who noted in a 2009 interview that "the record that it came from wasn't considered good enough for the American market. It wasn't put out."

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That was "Various Positions," which Columbia Records head Walter Yetnikoff rejected by telling Cohen, "Look, Leonard, we know you're great, but we don't know if you're any good." Cohen released the 1984 LP on an independent label, and Columbia didn't pick it up until six years later.

Yetnikoff comes off as boneheaded in Cohen's telling of the story, but the events chronicled in the documentary suggest that the executive wasn't entirely off the mark in expressing reservations about the synth-laden sound Cohen and producer John Lissauer created. "Hallelujah" wouldn't become well known until a decade after its release, once cover artists had significantly reworked its arrangement and its lyrics.

The song was always pulled in two directions: the sacred and the profane. After recording the song with lyrics that leaned on Biblical allusions, Cohen began performing the song live with a more secular set of lyrics that emphasized a conflicted but passionate sexual relationship.

Cover art for Leonard Cohen album "Various Positions," with the artist's face in a stylized blur against a black background.
"Hallelujah" was originally released on Leonard Cohen's 1984 album "Various Positions."
Contributed / Columbia Records

The Canadian artist was a veteran by the 1980s, best known for his early albums featuring songs like "Suzanne" (1968) and "Bird on the Wire" (1969). It was fellow 1960s stars like Bob Dylan (local angle!) and John Cale who first covered "Hallelujah," with Cale's 1991 version proving pivotal. The Velvet Underground co-founder stripped the song down to solo piano and consolidated Cohen's lyrics. That version provided the template for Jeff Buckley's 1994 cover and later landed, incongruously but effectively, in the movie "Shrek."

The most poignant irony of "Hallelujah" history is that the song may never have achieved its vaunted status if Buckley hadn't drowned in 1997. The song was widely covered in tribute to Buckley, bringing "Hallelujah" to the ears of the world. Once it reached that level, the rest was history: The movie's most amusing sequence is a montage of singers covering "Hallelujah" in music competition shows around the world, proving just how resilient the song is as a rousing number in virtually any arrangement.

What is it about "Hallelujah"? The question is ultimately unanswerable — because, art — but Geller and Goldfine have various artists take a stab at it. They're concerned less with the song's elegant construction or vivid imagery than with its elusive themes.

Incisive as always, Carlile strikes closest to the heart of the matter when she describes the impact the song had on her as a young woman.

"It evokes some of the most primitive human desires," Carlile tells the filmmakers, "and it marries it with a concept that so many of us struggle with, which is spirituality. Leonard Cohen somehow understood that 'Hallelujah' wasn't a church song, but that it was actually a moment of realization that life can be desperately hard." Carlile relates that to her own struggle to reconcile her sexuality with her spirituality: "to be young, faithful and gay."

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Geller and Goldfine might have benefited by narrowing their focus on the song and directing less attention to the songwriter. They don't have anything new to say about Cohen, who appears in vintage interviews as a gentle sage. Judy Collins says that she didn't go to bed with Cohen because she knew he was "dangerous." She says it with a chuckle, but that's quite a thread to leave hanging.

The song "Hallelujah" treads into risky territory, which is part of its power, but the filmmakers settle for telling a straightforward comeback story and elide Cohen's pricklier aspects. If you love the song and want to leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy about it, "Hallelujah" won't deny you that opportunity. If you want a more probing exploration of music and the mysteries of faith, that's between you and your maker.

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Short cuts

Did someone mention Bob Dylan? Here are a few more items of interest to fans of Duluth's own Bobby Zimmerman.

Chan Marshall, the singer-songwriter known professionally as Cat Power, has announced plans to recreate Dylan's 1966 concert at Royal Albert Hall. That was the concert where a heckler shouted "Judas!" at the recently electrified Dylan, and Cat Power will remain faithful to that show's aesthetic by playing acoustic for the first half before bringing out a band. If you're planning to be in London on Nov. 5 and want to check it out, tickets are now on sale at royalalberthall.com.

Closer to home — in fact, potentially in your pocket — five concerts by local artists are now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Alan Sparhawk, Charlie Parr, Superior Siren, Ingeborg von Agassiz and Rick McLean all recorded sessions in the Duluth Armory for a series, "Night at the Armory," that aired on the Duluth CW in 2018. All five episodes are now available to purchase on Amazon, and director Keith Hopkins told the News Tribune they'll also hit Tubi soon.

@bigalsmowing

This is the right way to do Duluth Minnesota. Trust me.

♬ The Man in Me - Bob Dylan

Finally, TikTok creator @bigalsmowing is going viral with a recommendation for "the right way to do Duluth Minnesota. Trust me." Standing in Canal Park, the TikTokker recommended a Duluth itinerary that includes landing at the airport, stopping at Bob Dylan's house ("it's a lot smaller than you think it's going to be"), getting an IUD at Planned Parenthood, and then going "straight to Bent Paddle."

"You pick up a six-pack and a pound of cheese curds. You go down to Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area. You put 'The Man In Me' by Bob Dylan on your ... phone, and then you think about all the women you loved and lost along the way."

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As a TikTok commenter noted: "I love that you can see the faint puff of smoke from the landfill fire in Superior in the background."

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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