“Hallelujah” is his great hymn of religious ecstasy and sexual desire. Some versions emphasize the sacred, while others dwell on what another poet called “the cost of the mind in a waste of shame.” “All I’ve ever learned from love/is how to shoot someone you’ve surpassed”: some singers omit that line (and those about being tied to a kitchen chair), but even when transcendence seems to triumph over cynicism, the tension between sacred desire and profane disappointment remains.
The documentary’s account of the song’s fate, indebted to Alan Light’s book “The Holy or the Broken,” is a fascinating exploration of the mechanics and metaphysics of pop culture’s memory. Bob Dylan, whom Cohen admired, added “Hallelujah” to some of his set lists in the late ’80s. John Cale’s cover, recorded for a 1991 tribute album, brought the song to the fore.
“From Cale to Buckley to Shrek” is Sloman’s synopsis. Jeff Buckley’s lavish rendition injected “Hallelujah” into the ’90s pop mainstream. “Shrek,” DreamWorks’ animated blockbuster about a green ogre in love, repurposed Cale’s gloomy version. The soundtrack album, which sold millions of copies, featured another, more in the melodramatic Buckley mode, by Rufus Wainwright. The locks were open.
“It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth.” By the hundredth time you’d think the magic would be gone, but “Hallelujah” is one of those rare songs that survives its trivialization with at least some of its majesty intact.
Cohen lived to witness his triumph, and the final third of the documentary is devoted to his comeback, including generous clips from his later concerts. He is a lively, complicated presence everywhere – witty, melancholy, well-dressed and soft-spoken. Towards the end, he radiates wisdom, gratitude, and the kind of fulfillment whose elusiveness had always been his great subject.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song
Rated PG-13: She tied you to a kitchen chair. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theatres.