For music nerds of sufficient intensity, there’s not much on this earth as fun as getting obsessed with a particular song. I recently spent an entire weekend digging into the Beatles’ B-side classic “Rain.” I consider it a weekend well spent. Thanks, Liverpool! Thanks, internet!
If you enjoy rabbit-hole excavations like this, I enthusiastically recommend the new documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, which is essentially an entire feature film dedicated to the history and the unlikely triumph of one brilliant piece of songwriting.
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet turned songwriter, didn’t start making music until he was well into his thirties when he haunted the edges of mainstream success with songs like “Suzanne” and “Bird on the Wire.”
The composition that would become his magnum opus, “Hallelujah,” was buried on a 1984 album that was initially rejected by his label. In fact, the song didn’t really blow up until it was later recorded by other artists, specifically John Cale and Jeff Buckley. “Hallelujah” has since become a new American standard, played at weddings, funerals, anniversaries, and TV singing competitions.
In the new documentary, we learn that Cohen spent more than seven years crafting “Hallelujah,” cycling through almost 200 verses before whittling it down to the final version. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, a masterpiece of existential romanticism and spiritual longing. It’s also a little … hmm, “earthy” is perhaps the polite term. As one observer in the film notes, “Leonard’s whole career was the pull between holiness and horniness.”
Directors Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine worked directly with the Cohen estate on the film, which gave them access to never-before-seen archival footage and private photographs. Otherwise, the filmmakers stick to the traditional music-documentary approach of talking-head interviews. Several famous people are recruited to say nice things, including Judy Collins, Clive Davis, Brandi Carlile, and Cohen’s late-career collaborator Sharon Robinson. Singer-songwriter Regina Spektor has the best line about contemplating Leonard Cohen’s work: “It’s like an instruction manual on how to be in this world.”
Cohen lived a famously interesting life, and one of the best passages details the time he went to visit the Zen monastery on Mount Baldy outside Los Angeles. He stayed for six years. “If you’re sitting in a meditation hall for eight hours a day, you get straight with yourself,” Cohen says. “It’s not religion, it’s more like science.”
Spirituality was central to Cohen’s life and work, and as his Zen adventure suggests, he was no dilettante. An interview with his rabbi reveals that Cohen was a lifelong seeker among the world’s wisdom traditions. Irish musician Glen Hansard offers some insight into how, with his greatest song, Cohen created a kind of modern humanist hymn: “He brought the word ‘Hallelujah’ out of the sky and made it OK to use down here among us mortals.”
In the final scenes, we see the elegant 70-something singer on his final world tour, performing his masterpiece at the Glastonbury and Coachella festivals and in Ireland, Belgium, Paris, Hungary, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Finland, and Israel.
Cohen has been the subject of traditional documentaries before, including director Lian Lunson’s 2005 Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. With Hallelujah, the filmmakers take a different and effective tack, marveling out loud about the raw brilliance of a song that simply would not be suppressed.
On the other end of the brilliance spectrum this week, we have the unfortunate indie film I Love My Dad, which pioneers new levels of cringe comedy—and not in a good way.
Comedian/actor Patton Oswalt headlines the film as Chuck, a sad-sack father and compulsive liar trying to reconcile with his teenage son Franklin (James Morosini). Chuck’s absent-dad bullshit has finally driven Franklin to ghost his father—blocking his number and shutting him out on social media.
In response, Chuck comes up with a colossally bad idea: He creates an online alter ego, stealing the name and photos of an attractive young waitress, and then proceeds to inadvertently catfish his own son. Naturally, things spin out of control. Soon, Franklin is falling in love—and eventually sexting—with a young woman who doesn’t exist. It’s a cruel thing to do. The idea, which the film desperately hopes we accept, is that Chuck is acting with good intentions.
The truly uncomfortable part is that we more or less have to accept this premise because it really happened. The film is based on the real-life experience of Morosini, who is also the writer and director. The onscreen gimmick is that Chuck’s online persona, Becca, appears in the virtual love scenes as a figment of Franklin’s imagination (played by actress Claudia Sulewski) so the awfulness isn’t as awful as it could be. But it’s still pretty awful. The film’s wild toggling between cringe comedy and earnest family drama induces a kind of narrative motion sickness.
Look, I don’t enjoy dragging movies, especially underdog independent films like this. But I must dutifully report that watching this movie made me physically uncomfortable. I don’t know if there’s an actual cringe muscle in the upper GI tract somewhere, but if there is, I think I sprained it.
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