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Film looks at Leonard Cohen through the lens of his best-known song

‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song’ paints a portrait of a persevering artist

Leonard Cohen performs in a scene from the documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.” (Leonard Cohen Family Trust/Sony Pictures Classics)
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(2.5 stars)

How did “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s anthem to the sacred and profane, wind up going from a deep cut on an album Cohen’s label considered un-releasable to one of the most ubiquitous songs of the early 21st century?

That is the question that animates “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s illuminating, if occasionally too obliging, documentary. Cohen fans who have gone from admiring his most famous song to bemoaning its transformation into fodder for people who don’t sing as much as listen to themselves sing most likely will miss more skepticism in a nearly two-hour movie that only obliquely considers how love for a piece of music can kill it as surely as the crassest record executive. It turns out that “Hallelujah” was the victim of both kinds of murder, first by notorious Columbia Records chief Walter Yetnikoff, who refused to release Cohen’s 1984 album “Various Positions” in the U.S., telling him, “We know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” Although Cohen continued to perform the song, it didn’t find new life until it was covered, first by John Cale and then by singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, whose lineage (he was the son of Tim Buckley) and early death in 1997 only added to his version’s mythic allure. When “Hallelujah” was used in the 2001 DreamWorks movie “Shrek,” whose soundtrack sold millions of copies, the jig was up: Cohen’s song, which he had taken several years to write, had gone from his own deeply personal spiritual and (depending on which version he was performing) sexual affirmation to millennial earworm and “American Idol” fodder.

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.

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