Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — by turns sacred and profane, mournful and determined — has become such a familiar and admired song that it has achieved classic status.
Its remarkably long journey to get there was well documented in the 2012 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah” by Alan Light, a Cincinnati native. Because of the book’s success, it has become a significant landmark along the “Hallelujah” trail.
Now, there’s a new documentary inspired by the book — Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, which opens August 5 at the Mariemont Theatre. Light served as a consulting producer for the film, which is directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.
Coinciding with the film’s release, Simon & Schuster has published a new edition of The Holy or the Broken that chronicles key events since 2012 in the continuing journey of “Hallelujah” (one of those events was the passing of Cohen in 2016, at age 82). The book’s new edition includes Kate McKinnon — in character as Hillary Clinton — singing a cathartic version of the song on Saturday Night Live’s immediately after Donald Trump shockingly defeated Clinton in Electoral College votes in the 2016 presidential election, despite her popular-vote victory. McKinnon’s performance also coincided with Cohen’s passing. At song’s end, McKinnon — speaking both as Clinton but also as herself — expresses support for those who were dazed, confused and worried about what awaited the country with Trump as president. “I’m not giving up and neither should you,” she said.
“It was another catalyst moment for the song,” Light says during a phone interview. “So the story keeps building.”
After an overlooked 1984 release, “Hallelujah” began to develop a following in the 1990s via exceptional cover versions by critically favored musicians John Cale and Jeff Buckley. Its big breakthrough arrived when Cale’s version was featured in the 2001 animated movie Shrek (the movie’s soundtrack album featured a version by Rufus Wainwright).
The documentary, like Light’s book, chronicles how Cohen was first a Canadian poet who became a folk-oriented singer-songwriter in the 1960s, garnering considerable respect. By the 1984 album Various Positions, he was looking to modernize his sound. Yet his longtime U.S. record label, Columbia, wouldn’t release it, not recognizing the potential of “Hallelujah” (an independent label distributed it without much initial notice). But the song’s belated success helped allow Cohen a later-in-life triumphant return to recording and touring.
Light’s own a-ha moment with the song didn’t come until 2010, despite the fact his father, Irwin, now a retired neonatologist who practiced at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and also taught at University of Cincinnati’s medical school, was a classmate of Cohen’s at Montreal’s McGill University. Both men were Jewish and raised in Montreal, Canada. “I grew up with Leonard’s college yearbook on our shelf,” Light says.
The initial rise of “Hallelujah” didn’t make a deep impression on Light, who already was very busy in New York writing and editing music stories (at age 55, he still lives in Manhattan with wife Suzanne and son Adam). But in 2010, Light attended a Yom Kippur open service at Manhattan’s massive Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, hosted by an LGBTQ congregation. For the Kol Nidre prayer, a choir sang “Hallelujah” and Light was taken aback. “You could just feel that everyone knew it,” he recalls. “People were in tears, and I thought, ‘How’d we get here; how’d this become the song that lights everyone up on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar at the pinnacle moment?’ And I also thought about what a weird trajectory it was for a song that nobody paid attention to for a long time and now it has become this universal anthem. How the hell did that happen? That’s what started my thought that there was a book in that.”
Light became devoted to music and arts writing while growing up in Cincinnati. One impetus was his mother, Janet Light, a dance critic for Cincinnati Enquirer who shared her work experiences with her young son. At Cincinnati Country Day School, he looked for writing opportunities and as a teenager had a radio show at WAIF-FM.
“It was pretty freeform, I’ve got to say,” Light explains. “It started as ‘60s rock-focused but got increasingly looser and looser. Certainly it was rock-based, but I played Miles Davis records or whatever as I found them.” He has continued with radio and currently has a 4-7 p.m. daily show on SiriusXM 106, a music-talk channel called “Volume”.
At Yale University, where Light majored in American studies with a concentration on American popular music, he devoted nine months of his senior year to a thesis on the Beastie Boys’ 1986 Licensed to Ill album. “Plenty of people thought it was goofy, but damn if I wasn’t on the most pre-professional track of any of them,” Light says now.
From college, Light wrote and edited for magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe. From there, he became an editor at Tracks, a start-up geared to what might be called “adult alternative” forms of contemporary popular music, and which had as a financial backer Frank Wood, the Cincinnatian who started WEBN-FM’s alternative rock format back in 1967. Tracks lasted from 2003 to 2005.
For his book, Light was not able to talk to Cohen, who limited his interviews. However, Cohen’s management was supportive of the project. Cohen’s estate was supportive, too, of the “Hallelujah” documentary.
But Light did have one cherished personal moment with Cohen. It came after his book’s 2012 publication, when he was asked to do an interview with the revered singer for a press event related to a new album. “We did 10 minutes,” Light says. “He did stop after my first question and thanked me for the book and said how much he appreciated and enjoyed it. It meant the entire world to me.”
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song opens at Mariemont Theatre on August 5. To purchase or learn about The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” visit simonandschuster.com.
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