“Hallelujah” is his great anthem of religious ecstasy and sexual longing. Some versions emphasize the sacred, while others dwell on what another poet called “the expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” “All I’ve ever learned from love/Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”: Some singers omit that line (and the one about being tied to a kitchen chair), but even when transcendence seems to prevail over cynicism, the tension between sacred desire and profane disappointment remains.
The documentary’s account of the song’s fate, indebted to Alan Light’s book “The Holy or the Broken,” is a fascinating study in the mechanics and metaphysics of pop-culture memory. Bob Dylan, who admired Cohen, added “Hallelujah” to some of his set lists in the late ’80s. John Cale’s cover, recorded for a 1991 tribute album, brought the song to wider attention.
“From Cale to Buckley to Shrek” is Sloman’s synopsis. Jeff Buckley’s full-throated rendition injected “Hallelujah” into the ’90s pop mainstream. “Shrek,” the DreamWorks animated blockbuster about a lovelorn green ogre, repurposed Cale’s glum version. The soundtrack album, which sold millions of copies, included another one, more in the melodramatic Buckley mode, by Rufus Wainwright. The floodgates were open.
“It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth.” By the hundredth time, you might think the magic would be gone, but “Hallelujah” is one of those rare songs that survives its banalization with at least some of its sublimity intact.
Cohen lived to see his triumph, and the last third of the documentary is devoted to his comeback, including generous clips from his later concerts. He is, throughout, a vivid, complicated presence — witty, melancholy, well-dressed and soft-spoken. By the end, he radiates wisdom, gratitude, and the kind of fulfillment whose elusiveness had always been his great subject.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
Rated PG-13: She tied you to a kitchen chair. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.