Movie – Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song

September Cohen

Leonard CohenWhen we were in the Berkshires last week, my wife recommended that we go to the Images Cinema in downtown Williamstown, MA, to see the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. She knew this would be the type of film I would be interested in seeing. I didn’t even know of its existence.

It is, the New York Times called “a definitive exploration of [the] singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen as seen through the prism of his internationally renowned hymn.”

It starts off with the poet and perhaps dilatant songwriter too shy to go out on stage. His then-new friend, Judy Collins, who had just covered his song Suzanne, went out on stage with him. He developed some confidence in performing, but developed some bad, though not uncommon, habits.

Leonard and his producer created an album containing Hallelujah and other good songs. In 1984, his label, Columbia, initially rejected it! (Yet they released an overdone album produced by Phil Spector.) The path of the song, involving perhaps 150 verses, Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and far too many versions from American Idol and similar programs, is a fascinating tale.

Then in his seventies, Leonard has a musical resurgence. I have two albums of his from the 2010s, which I enjoy. He died in 2016 at the age of 82.

Rarities

“Approved for production by Leonard Cohen just before his 80th birthday in 2014, the film accesses a wealth of never-before-seen archival materials from the Cohen Trust, including Cohen’s personal notebooks, journals and photographs, performance footage, and extremely rare audio recordings and interviews.” The film’s copyright is 2021, but the release date was July 15, 2022.

At some point, Leonard considered changing his first name to September. It’s not only his birth month, but it is also the month that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur often fall. I was particularly fascinated with him negotiating with his religious beliefs.

As luck would have it, Kelly has already written an essay about the song and has linked it to a Cohen version of Hallelujah.

The documentary is recommended if you can find it.

Iconic things I have grown tired of

“a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual”

imsotiredParticularly in the past year or two, there are certain songs, a famous speech, and a cliched term that I have grown tired of. I feel as though that saying so is almost a betrayal of the culture.

There are songs played/sung too often. This includes Imagine, the John Lennon song, played whenever we have a “Can’t we just get along” moment. Gal Gadot admits her cover was in “poor taste.”

Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah is another. I’m partial to the version by k.d. lang, but there are others. I don’t even watch music competition shows on TV. But when I flick through the channels, someone is emoting that song. A 50-year moratorium would be nice; OK, 20 – give another generation a chance to rediscover it.

Also on the list is the hymn Amazing Grace. This is definitely a COVID thing. I ADORE Amazing Grace, especially Aretha’s version. Yet, after too many deaths, from disease, disasters, and other tragedies, it’s become the go-to song. And not always done well. I could use a break from it. Sacrilege, I know. Though when it’s played on bagpipes, it STILL gets to me; go figure.

Promissory note

I’ve said this before, but it’s the “I Have a Dream” speech by MLK. (sigh.) No, not the WHOLE speech. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” Good stuff.

Or, “In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”

The summer of our discontent

Or “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality… Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.”

That’s all in the first third of the address. Instead, all we hear is the ending. Specifically, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To that end, the takeaway by too many is that we’re all now equal, those who were born on third base and those in the on-deck circle with a broken bat. No, one can’t talk about the latter part without fixing the former. (n.b., we ain’t there yet.)

Free speech

The term “cancel culture” has, to my mind, been rendered meaningless. The culture has always “canceled” people, whether it be Hester Prynn in fiction or Copernicus in real life. It is almost “them” doing the canceling, whereas when “we” do it, it is to create “standards.”

As this article states, “Cancel culture is built into the fabric of documenting history. Implicit in the phrase ‘those in power write the history books’ is the notion that stories, victories, and pain of everyone but the winners are erased or greatly diminished.”

In my lifetime, there was a group called the John Birch Society. Its critics, such as old-line conservatives such as William F. Buckley Jr. and the magazine National Review, considered it a fringe organization element of the movement. They were certainly “canceled”, in modern parlance.

Yet, Politico noted in 2017, The JBS is back. “Bircher ideas, once on the fringe, are increasingly commonplace in today’s GOP and espoused by friends in high places. And the group is ready to make the most of it.”  And has. 

If so virulent an organization has become the “mainstream”, then “cancel culture” is, at best, not nearly as monolithic as some have suggested.

Easter music throwback: Hallelujah (Beethoven)

I’ve been singing it, off and on for about a half century myself, including this very day.

As I’ve mentioned before, when my sister Leslie and I were in high school in Binghamton, NY, we somehow had the opportunity to visit an eighth-grade class in suburban Vestal. It was only a few miles from the county seat, but, in the late 1960s, it was a cultural canyon.

What was amazing about this group was that they put out an album of classical and popular music. And one of the pieces was Hallelujah, from Christ on the Mount of Olives, Opus 85, an oratorio by Beethoven. They were rather good, as I recall. Where IS that LP?

From the Wikipedia: “[The oratorio] was begun in the fall of 1802… The libretto in German is by the poet Franz Xaver Huber, editor of the Wiener Zeitung, with whom Beethoven worked closely. It was written in a very short period; in a letter to Breitkopf & Härtel written shortly after the oratorio’s completion, Beethoven spoke of having written it in ‘a few weeks,’ although he later claimed that the piece required no more than 14 days to complete. It was first performed on April 5, 1803 at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna; in 1811, it was revised by Beethoven for publication by Breitkopf & Härtel. The 10 years that passed between the composition of the work and its publication resulted in its being assigned a relatively high opus number.”

While the piece as a whole has had mixed response, including from the composer himself, “the “Welten singen…” finale chorus has enjoyed some popularity on its own.

And I’ve been singing it, off and on for about a half century myself, including this very day. There’s a surprise chord about 30 seconds before the end which is always my favorite.

LISTEN: to Hallelujah:

Mormon Tabernacle Choir

William Baker Festival Singers, Guest Singers from Area Parish Choirs, and Symphony Orchestra

Chancel Choir; Scott Dean, director; Wayne Slater, organist. June 12, 2016

HAPPY EASTER!

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