Taking their cues from Alan Light’s 2012 book “The Holy or the Broken,” Geller and Goldfine use the morphology of “Hallelujah” as a lens through which to retrace Cohen’s life, which began in Montreal, where he grew up the son of a prosperous Jewish clothing store owner. Having made a name for himself as a poet and a novelist, Cohen became a singer-songwriter in his 30s, overcoming a bout of stage fright at New York’s Town Hall with the help of Judy Collins, interviewed here along with journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, producer John Lissauer and longtime backup singer and co-songwriter Sharon Robinson, featured in some of the most exquisite live performances included in the film. The filmmakers make heavy use of the many notebooks that Cohen left behind, containing notes for “Hallelujah” and lots of crossed-out and rejected lyrics. Sloman estimates that Cohen ultimately wrote between 150 and 180 verses to a song he seemed never to stop tinkering with. (When Cohen began singing a secular version of the song while on tour in 1988, Sloman recalls thinking, “We’re not in the Old Testament anymore. … What the f---?")
Of course, “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” addresses Cohen’s lifelong spiritual search, which began in the synagogue where his Orthodox family worshiped and eventually took him to a Zen monastery in California. The film also interviews his lifelong friend Nancy Bacal and former lover Dominique Issermann, the latter of whom was living with him when he was composing much of the song. By the time the filmmakers reach the Cale-Buckley-“Shrek” era, the song is already beginning to wear thin. What turns out to be the most moving and meaningful thing about the film isn’t the song at its center, but the work ethic of a man who might have disappeared from the public eye for years at a time but never stopped sweating every word. Bob Dylan might have dined out on stories of writing songs in the back of taxicabs, but Cohen gets to a fundamental truth of discipline, whether personal, artistic or spiritual: “Perseverance is the essential element.”
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Angelika Film Center Mosaic. Contains brief strong language and some sexual material. 155 minutes.