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‘Hallelujah’ documentary explores Cohen’s opus

NEW YORK — Leonard Cohen wrote around 150 verses to “Hallelujah,” or so the scholars claim. The Canadian folk singer, who fused Jewish mysticism with pop mythology for a global audience, wrote several hit songs over his 50-year career, including many, such as “Who By Fire” and “You Want It Darker,” that are Jewish in content.

A still from ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’. (Graeme Mitchell/Sony Pictures Classics)

But none of them were as successful, or as pored-over, as “Hallelujah,” which has been covered around 300 times and played at weddings, funerals, church services and every possible occasion in between.

With its allusions to King David and Samson and Delilah, and obscure but tantalizing lyrics, few works by a Jewish artist have been subject to so much scrutiny and interpretation — much to the bafflement of its composer.

The new documentary, “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” does not recount all 150 verses, despite how fervently some of Cohen’s more devout acolytes may long to hear their minor falls and major lifts.

But it does play “Hallelujah” many, many times, and allows some of the artists who have covered it, including Brandi Carlile and Rufus Wainwright, to explain what the song has meant to them.

“Hallelujah” the film seeks to explore the song’s relationship not only to its creator, but also to Judaism in general.

Directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, inspired by the nonfiction book The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light, use interviews with Cohen’s associates to explore both the song’s and Cohen’s legacies.

The film structures Cohen’s life into the periods before and after “Hallelujah,” released on 1984’s “Various Positions” album when Cohen was already 50.

It shows how his Jewish upbringing in Montreal and love of questioning certain aspects of the faith, including how he “was touched as a child by that kind of charged speech I heard in the synagogue,” played a pivotal role in its creation (“his faith was strong but he needed proof”).

Cohen began work on “Various Positions” when he was in his 40s — the age when, according to some Jewish traditions, Jews may begin studying Kabbalah.

Cohen also briefly debated changing his name to September, which his rabbi Mordecai Findley notes in the film translates to “Elul” — the Hebrew month on the verge of Rosh Hashanah that signifies renewal.

Those new beginnings, the film argues, were best symbolized with “Hallelujah”: a blaze of light in every word. But nothing in Cohen’s life came easy, and the song’s road to popularity wasn’t straight. Columbia Records opted not to release “Various Positions” in the US, and the song languished in obscurity as a Cohen deep cut until first Bob Dylan and then John Cale revived it.

It wasn’t until the young Jeff Buckley discovered and did his own variation of Cale’s recording in 1994 that “Hallelujah” became a phenomenon. New generations embraced Buckley’s haunted, ethereal take on the lyrics, and his death at a young age added to the song’s mystique.

As the influence of the song spins far away from this Montreal Jewish troubadour, and he loses his life savings after being swindled, the film offers a memorable sequence that doesn’t feature Cohen at all.

It’s a montage of 2000s-era talent show contestants offering up endless covers of “Hallelujah,” backed by bombastic strings and synthesizers, lodging the song firmly in the American canon.

The “American Idol” and “X Factor” renditions are devoid of his trademark doubt and ambiguity. What the film winds up showing is the song’s steady march toward secularization.

Who does “Hallelujah” belong to, at the end of the day? Is it even Jewish? Is it even Cohen’s?

The film spins out its influence and then tries to run it back. But when one hears the song enough times, in enough different settings, and realizes it’s touching everyone who hears it on some deep, imperceptible level, it becomes something else: a piece of art that simply came into the world, perhaps, as the song itself hints, through divine providence.

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