Tag Archives: Leonard Cohen

Secret Chords

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

by George Wolf

For longtime fans of Leonard Cohen, the continued pop culture embrace of “Hallelujah” can sometimes feel bittersweet. Other times it just makes you want to scream.

Jeff Buckley didn’t write it! It’s not a Christmas song! And for God’s sake, stop messing with the lyrics!

And even though that’s satisfying to yell when another TV talent show contestant attacks Cohen’s masterpiece with more bluster than feeling, you can’t deny you’re guilty of an equally false claim of ownership. As singer/songwriter Brandi Carlile rightly points out, by now the song “Is its own person. It has a life of its own.”

So, how’d that happen? Back in the early 80s, “Hallelujah” was DOA, buried on a Cohen album that Columbia Records dismissed outright as unworthy to release.

Alan Light first tracked the song’s ascent in his 2012 bestseller “The Holy or the Broken,” and Light serves as a consultant to co-directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine for their documentary examination. Straddling the line between biopic and expose, the film gives the uninitiated an overview of Cohen’s background while indulging veteran admirers with a deeper dive into his most acclaimed composition.

Geller and Goldfine interview fans, friends and journalists, tracking Cohen’s unique troubadour life alongside the gradual wave of “Hallelujah” cover versions. It seems only right that Bob Dylan was one of the first to recognize the song’s genius, and it’s a treat to hear his interpretation set the stage for the mainstream breakthrough that came via Jeff Buckley and Shrek (John Cale in the film, Rufus Wainwright on the soundtrack).

But the film’s strongest moments come through the intimacy of hearing from Cohen himself, and getting closer to his often tortured songwriting process (“If I knew where songs came from, I would go there more often”). We see notebook after notebook full of lyrics, while handwritten lines appear and disappear as guesses are made as to just how many verses (100? 180?) Cohen wrote for “Hallelujah” alone.

At times Geller and Goldfine lean back on biography just when the musical detective work is cooking, but A Journey, A Song ultimately connects the two with a resonant thread.

Leonard Cohen was a seeker, always striving to reconcile the primal with the spiritual. The process may have taken several years, but he wrote a song that lays that search bare with unparalleled eloquence. And though Cohen himself admitted before his death that “too many people sing it,” Geller and Goldfine are smart enough to include plenty of footage of Cohen performing the song himself, and to close with k.d. lang’s goosebump-time version that Cohen hinted was his favorite.

Cry and Laugh Again

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love

by Hope Madden

For fans, there is something endlessly fascinating about Leonard Cohen. Maybe it’s because, regardless of the volume of his work—songs, novels and poems—or the intimacy of his words, it’s still impossible to feel as if you know him.

In Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, it’s clear that Cohen’s longtime companion and eternal muse Marianne Ihlen felt the same way.

Ihlen inspired the Cohen classic So Long, Marianne, obviously, as well as dozens of others including Bird on a Wire. The two had one of those Sixties relationships—open but committed, tumultuous but loving, and ultimately doomed.

For eight years they lived together, on and off, along with Ihlen’s son Axel in a humble cottage on the Greek island of Hydra. An artists’ refuge of sorts, it was the kind of pre-hippie paradise where eccentrics engaged perhaps too freely in freedom.

It was there that Broomfield first met Ihlen. Their friendship and the director’s clear fondness for his subject give the film a fresh and odd intimacy.

Though his personal connection to Ihlen is an interesting inroad into this story, the doc sometimes feels like two separate and uneven pieces sewn together.

That seems partly appropriate, given that Leonard and Marianne spent increasing spans of time apart as the years wore on. And there’s no question that—for Leonard devotees, at least—the behind the scenes footage of Cohen on tour in the Sixties, commentary from his bandmates, and snippets of background intel from close friends is as engaging as it is enlightening.

Unfortunately, we lose Marianne almost entirely by Act 2. The titular character becomes a bit of a ghost, and not even one who looms large over the material in the foreground.

Of course, as the film was made posthumously (both Ihlen and Cohen died in 2016), their own insights are limited. In this way, though, Ihlen’s presence outweighs Cohen’s in that Broomfield dug up audio conversations in which she discusses the relationship.

The lack of Cohen’s own thoughts on their pairing—outside of one or two rambling, drug-riddled onstage song intros—makes its absence known.

Still, there is a melancholy beauty in the way Bloomfield’s documentary—his love letter to Marianne and Leonard—follows Cohen’s song lyrics, telling of a fractured, unconventional but nonetheless loving connection.

Indeed, it is Cohen’s final words of love to Ihlen, a note sent to her hospital room as she lay dying, filmed at her request, that illustrates that very point.

A bit disjointed but never uninteresting, Words of Love is an often compelling look at the relationship between muse and artist. For Cohen fans, it’s required viewing.

Countdown to Celebrate Leonard Cohen’s 80th

Do you remember the 21st night of September? Earth, Wind and Fire obviously can. So can we – George turned 50! And he wasn’t the only one blowing out candles (though he was definitely the cutest one). Bill Murray turned 64, Stephen King turned 67, and the great Leonard Cohen turned 80.

To celebrate these milestones, we decided to listen to some Cohen, who can fill any number of soundtracks. From Natural Born Killers to Shrek and dozens more, you’ve undoubtedly heard more Cohen in the movie theater than you ever have on the radio. Given the melancholy beauty of his work, it’s hardly surprising that filmmakers routinely turn to Cohen’s distinctive sound to provide ambiance, atmosphere, and often even an aid to characterization.


McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Robert Altman’s foray into Westerns produced the beautifully off-kilter McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a tale of love, progress, naiveté, opium, and snow. In creating the most human Western until Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Altman used haunting songs by Cohen to mirror the film’s melancholic poetry. Cohen gave the director permission for several songs from his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, because he’d been a fan of Altman’s earlier film, Brewster McCloud, but the songwriter didn’t at first care for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Cohen’s first reaction notwithstanding, the music, Vilmos Zsigmond’s glorious photography, and the stellar performances from what would become the Altman stock company of actors came together to create an entirely unexpected genre film.

Quote: If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn/They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem


Secretary (2002)

Steven Shainberg’s charmingly subversive, sadomasochistic romance picture boasts, above all, a single, perfect performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal. Every other remarkable element – darkly clever script, strong casting, crisp visuals, and excellent soundtrack including the Cohen track “I’m Your Man” – takes a backseat to the role that made audiences wake up to the presence of this winsome-yet-naughty actress. The film – which manages to be diabolically humorous, emphatically politically incorrect, and yet entirely appealing – benefits in one quick scene from Cohen’s ability to capture all the same energies in lyrical form.

Quote: If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you


Shrek (2001)

I’m not a huge fan of any entry in the Shrek franchise, but the first film gets big props for taking one of animation’s more bizarrely profound turns when mirroring the big ogre’s existential turmoil with the world’s most perfect piece of pop poetry, Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. The film used John Cale’s mournful version (which is also features on the Basquiat soundtrack), while the soundtrack made Rufus Wainwright’s take popular. Whichever the version, including the song gives Shrek the appearance of depth and edginess unexplored in any Disney film.

Quote: And even though it all went wrong/I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah


Natural Born Killers (1994)

Natural Born Killers is a kind of psychedelic reimagining of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. The film boasts just glimpses of the brutal, clever, verbal script only Quentin Tarantino can produce, primarily because his screenplay was rewritten and, unfortunately, directed by master of cinematic hyperbole, Oliver Stone. Though the product is an over-the-top, trippy but captivating mess lacking the raw energy of anything Tarantino would go on to direct, it’s not entirely without appeal. Mashing together amped-up ideas from Bonnie and Clyde to Morton Downey, Jr. to some of the most magnificently brutal films in Hollywood’s closet, this picture certainly nails its tone. Just a little assistance in this venture comes from Cohen’s pessimistic premonition “The Future”.

Quote: When they said repent, repent/I wonder what they meant


Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005)

Given the volume of Cohen’s work sprinkled across films, it seems fitting to fill the screen and the theater with an entire picture dedicated to his work, as Lian Lunson has done with her documentary. Leonard Cohen emerges from his tower of song to share thoughts about poetry and stories about those elements that informed and propelled him. All the while some his most talented and devoted followers – whether it’s Rufus Wainwright’s playful cynicism with “Everybody Knows” or Antony Hegarty’s earnest energy with “If It Be Your Will” – treat us to his songs like prayers to something other than God.

Quote: But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone/I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from a window in the tower of song