There aren’t many individual songs worthy of a feature-length documentary “biography.” “Strange Fruit” got the treatment, as did, recently and regrettably, “American Pie.” (And, no, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Stairway to Heaven is not about Led Zeppelin.) To that short list of iconic earworms we can add “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s oft-covered composition and the subject of the surprisingly powerful Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s film packs such an emotional punch, but the ubiquity of Hallelujah over the last couple of decades, from Shrek (which the movie covers) to Kate McKinnon-as-Hilary Clinton’s post-2016-election elegy for Cohen, and for America (which it doesn’t). Geller and Goldfine, though, provide a fresh perspective on the song’s place in the life and career of its originator as well as its elevation into something that transcends those origins.
The first half-hour or so is taken up by a fairly standard look at the unlikely early career of Cohen, a Jew from Montreal who had success as a poet and novelist before turning to music. Part of his appeal was an aura of sagacity that was evident from the get-go. “My goal is to become an elder,” he says in one archival clip. (Mission accomplished, Leonard.) Veteran music journalist Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who chronicled Cohen at the time, provides a wealth of first-hand information, including a glimpse of the dozens of notebooks employed in the feverish creation of, per Cohen, at least 150 verses of the song.
Things get more granular, and more fascinating, as Cohen prepares his seventh album, Various Positions, which was recorded in 1983 but was dumped by Capital Records, whose chairman didn’t think it was commercial enough. Even after its release by an independent label, it went largely unappreciated except by a certain other talented songwriter named Bob Dylan, who was apparently the first artist to cover “Hallelujah” live. Others, including John Cage (who’s interviewed here), added their own takes, but of course the one that launched the tune into the stratosphere was Jeff Buckley’s soulful 1994 rendition, which gained even more poignancy after his tragic drowning three years later. “I hope [Cohen] never hears it,” Buckley says in an archival interview. “He’d think it sounds like a little boy singing it.”
Throughout the film, Geller and Goldfine use a neat visual trick to cut between their present-day interview subjects (which include Judy Collins, Clive Davis, Amanda Palmer, and Glen Hansard) and photos of their past selves. Everyone has their own analysis of the song’s genius, but they boil down to the way Cohen was able to find the sacred in the secular, adopting a devout perspective and reclaiming religious language itself. (“He made the word usable again,” says Hansard.)
When Hallelujah gets to the post-Shrek years, including a truly cringey assemblage of performances from a host of reality talent shows, you can understand why even Cohen came to sympathize with calls for a moratorium on its use in movies and TV shows. But even this musical overdose can’t diminish the song’s potency and the way it continues to inspire an increasingly diverse group of artists. If this movie encourages that trend, and prompts audiences to explore more of Cohen’s vast library, then it will have done its job. (Opens Friday, July 29, at Cinema 21)
GREEK CINEMA IS WEIRD. At least, the portion that makes it onto American screens is. From the land of Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) and Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) comes director Christos Nikou and his debut feature, Apples. Nikou’s first job in the film industry was as a crew member on Dogtooth, and he has clearly adopted Lanthimos’ deadpan surrealism, to impressive effect.
Apples takes place in a word beset by a mysterious plague that causes sudden, unexplained amnesia. Most of the time, its tabula rasa victims are eventually reunited with family members or loved ones, but those who are found without identification and end up “unclaimed” are sent to recovery centers where they are instructed in basic life skills and taught how to create new memories.
One such figure is Patient 14842 (Aris Servetalis), an amiable cipher who, after some basic training, is given an apartment, a Polaroid camera, and a tape recorder. He receives tapes from his doctors that instruct him to perform various mundane tasks (ride a bicycle, see a horror movie, go to a strip club) and then take a photograph of himself completing them. The photos go into a scrapbook that, supposedly, will help the patient form a new network of memories.
As 14842 obediently goes about his tasks, he meets a woman (Sofia Georgovassili) in the same predicament, and the possibility of forging a new life beckons. But Nikous raises questions about that possibility, the nature of forgetting, and the connection between emotion and memory. Like his fellow Greeks, he manages to nimbly shift between dry, straight-faced hilarity and moments of genuine melancholy.
The themes in Apples are reminiscent of films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Blade Runner, but its droll attitude makes it unique. It was shot before the Covid pandemic, but its portrait of an isolated, bewildered world certainly resonates even more today. Nikous may still be wrestling with the anxiety of influence, but he’s taken a big first step.
THE VARIETY OF FILMS from around the globe that show up on one streaming service or another can be overwhelming, but three recent titles are worth seeking out.
THE MOST ACCOMPLISHED is Olga, a gripping drama about a 15-year-old Ukrainian gymnast (Anastasia Budyashkina) living in 2013 Kyiv. As the Maidan Square protests against then-President Viktor Yanukovich escalate, and her journalist mother is targeted by the regime, Olga is exiled to Switzerland (her late father was Swiss) and begins training with that country’s national team. Torn between her passion for gymnastics and her patriotism as she watches the violence back home, she eventually realizes she needs to make a choice.
First-time feature director Elie Grappe elicits amazing performances from his non-professional cast of gymnasts, especially Budyashinka, who is completely at ease in front of the camera whether she’s flying around on the uneven bars or delivering intense dialogue. The film incorporates actual footage of the 2013 uprising, which of course gives it added poignancy in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That tragedy has, in a sad bit of life imitating art, forced Budyashinka into exile in Switzerland. (Opens Friday, July 29, in Seattle; currently available to rent via Amazon, Vudu, and KinoNow)
THE MOST SURPRISING is Dual, a film whose title, appropriately enough, has two meanings. This clever, dark-humored genre piece stars Karen Gillan as Sarah, a miserable young woman whose life only gets worse after she receives a terminal diagnosis.
In director Riley Stearns’ (The Art of Self-Defense) world, anyone expecting to die can have a clone of themselves created so that their friends and family won’t miss them when they’re gone. (It’s expensive, but the payment plan is the new you’s responsibility.) Sarah opts in, and proceeds to live with her clone for several months in order to teach “Sarah’s Double” how to be an authentic replacement. When Sarah unexpectedly gets the medical all-clear, Sarah’s Double invokes a law that gives her the right to demand a duel to the death between the pair. (“We can’t just have two of you running around,” one scientist explains.)
Aaron Paul plays the combat trainer Sarah hires to help her prepare for the showdown. What could have been a rote sci-fi thriller benefits immensely from Stearns’ dark wit, and the persistently, humorously affectless performances from Gillen and Paul. (Currently available on DVD & Blu-ray, and for rental on various streaming services.)
THE WEIRDEST is Bloody Oranges, an extremely dark French comedy that brings together a 16-year-old preparing to lose her virginity, a government Finance Minister caught in a tax scandal, and an elderly couple who participate in rock ’n’ roll dance contests. We also meet that couple’s son, a social-climbing attorney, as well as very strange man who keeps a very large pig as a pet.
For the first half, the connections between our three plot strands are obscure, but at one point director Jean-Christophe Meurisse puts Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote on screen: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Then things get increasingly, rapidly, disturbing. Not for those faint of heart, Bloody Oranges is a film with a vision of the world that may not be pretty, but feels fairly accurate. (Currently available on DVD and for rental on various streaming services)