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'Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song' and 'The Day the Music Died': Robin's movie review

For this week's Movie Minutes, Robin Holabird takes a look at two movies about classic songs.

A movie poster for "Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song via Sony Picture Classics" shows Leonard Cohen wearing a top hat and holding a cane with the title of the movie written in yellow, script letters.
Sony Picture Classics

Two significantly different songs inspire separate documentaries this summer, proving that just a few minutes of performance can lead to hours and decades' worth of impact. Don McLean’s American Pie changed radio by playing a full, nine-minute run in 1971 — 60 years ago. Leonard Cohen’s 1984 release of Hallelujah took time before various reconfigurations turned it into a hit for recording artists and a staple of street musicians. In both cases, the songs hold up to the sustained study by their documentarians.

First, out of the block for widespread U.S. release on Paramount+, The Day the Music Died provides a historical backdrop for American Pie, though most baby boomers already know the lyric refers to a plane crash that killed rock legends Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. Filmmakers use the hook of an American Pie anniversary performance by McClean at the theater, where the 1950s singers gave their final concert.

While filmmakers emphasize a storytelling universality for the song, it still seems locked in a specific era. Not so Hallelujah, a song whose chorus suits varied circumstances. One of the song’s great ironies comes from its frequent play as a Christmas carol, despite its Old Testament references along with several highly-sexual verses. How many verses? No one gives a consistent number — just say “lots.”

With all its variations, Hallelujah took a long road toward iconic status implied in the film’s title, which includes the words “Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.” Complications for the work’s initial acceptance involve the songwriter’s nature as an iconoclastic poet. Along the way, ironic situations arise, including the eventual springboard for the song’s indelible appeal — an animated feature film for kids. After Shrek, the shortened, sanitized variation recorded by Rufous Wainwright got picked up by street musicians the world over.

I admit to sucker status when it comes to the haunting melody, and will never forget my own tear-inducing moment hearing it echo on the streets of Spain’s Santiago de Compostella. That night, I finished walking the same Camino Martin Sheen treads in a movie called The Way.

Songs heighten memories, and whether examining American Pie or Hallelujah, filmmakers benefit from built-in audiences who love the works. In both cases, the single song opens itself to each line being sung by a different artist, from megastar to street musician, all edited together to create yet another memorable performance.

This review aired on KUNR FM on Friday, August 12.

Robin Holabird is KUNR’s entertainment reviewer, author, and former film commissioner for the Nevada Film Office. You can browse a full archive of her reviews here.

Robin Holabird reviews movies for KUNR, and her reviews have aired for more than 30 years. During that time, she has had a high profile in the Nevada film community.
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