Thursday, November 17, 2016

Hallelujah, Mr. Cohen

by Melissa Uhrin
"Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?"

Whether you care for music or not, it is the perfect accompaniment to highlight unspoken emotions in film.

On November 7th, we lost our master composer of movie soundtracks, Canada's own Leonard Cohen. Ever since the news was announced, I have been listening to his music and reliving memories of key movie moments that the songs bring to mind.
I am going to start with the newest to me film, and the first that popped up when I began my search for all things Cohen, Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). The haunting song that accompanies the opening scene adds so much depth and melancholy and is foreshadowing what lies ahead. I have never really been the biggest fan of the Western genre, so this was nowhere near the top of my "to-watch" list, but I am quite happy that I did, especially since the music drew me right in. In true ballad form, the song ties in so perfectly with the film and the titular character that you would think it had actually been written specifically for the movie. You would be wrong though. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It was only after filming had ended and editing had begun that Altman realized that he had pretty much subconsciously used Cohen's songs to create the visual aesthetics onscreen. The filmmaker and musician got together, matched music with scenes and eventually settled on three songs: "The Stranger" (which introduces us to the mournful stranger with the shady past during the opening credits), "Sisters of Mercy" (enter Mrs. Miller's prostitutes), and "Winter Lady" (Mrs. Miller's theme, which speaks of the love and devotion McCabe had for her and closes out the film in the same way that "The Stranger" opens it up, with lyrical, heartfelt storytelling). McCabe and Mrs. Miller will be getting a revisit from me in the very near future.
"Everybody Knows" was another of his popular songs and got its fair share of use in films. The first of two most notable uses for me was in Pump Up The Volume in 1990 (which will be a trip down '90s memory lane for any nostalgia seekers out there, and reminds me why I had the biggest crush on Christian Slater as a teen). This movie had completely dropped from memory until very recently, so I was excited to revisit it, and was so happy to fall in love with the music all over again. The song is used by Slater's character, DJ "Hard Harry," repeatedly throughout the film as a shocker to draw listeners out of their comfort zone, and is the perfect song to do so. The second was in Atom Egoyan's Exotica (1994), and it is put to great, although somewhat ominous use, as the theme for Mia Kirschner's strip dances. Because "Everybody Knows" what you're doing in that place. So SO good. I forgot how much I loved this movie, and again, it is the music that makes it for me.

Another movie I haven't watched in DECADES (I hate that that's a thing I can say!) is Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Again we find another song put to incredible use as the opener for a film ("Waiting For The Miracle"), set to sexy crazy chick dancing, scorpions being mowed down in the prime of their life, dirty leering truckers and violence, so much violence.
Now, the song that has been stuck in my head for the past few days is, of course, "Hallelujah." Not only is it fun to sing to an empty house (the cats and dog are my best audience), but it brings to mind all of the wonderful performances and covers of it over the years. My favourite is K.D. Lang's barefoot rendition during the 2005 Juno Awards, the thought of which still gives me chills up and down my spine. Cohen's own version of the song is not as widely used in film; the covers tend get more play, but the one use of it that immediately comes to mind is of that gratuitous sex scene in 2009's Watchmen. You can't unsee it once you've seen it, but Leonard Cohen's deep raspy voice will help you through. Rufus Wainwright's cover of it in Shrek brought it to a whole new generation of kids. With over 300 versions of the song covered by everyone from Bono to Justin Timberlake, it's sure to stand the test of time and accompany many more film moments to come.

Also on my list to watch, 2005's Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, which I have been trying to track down but haven't had any success as of yet.

Music and lyrics, much like art in all its forms, is open to interpretation, and there is something in any given song that will speak directly to us. The power and ever-eternalness of Leonard's Cohen's poetic wordplay will live on both onscreen when filmmakers need his words to bring to life a particular scene, and when we sing along to the voices in our heads.


  1. What a great piece! I haven't seen Exotica since I was 12(!) and did not understand what the hell was going on, and I had honestly forgotten Pump Up The Volume, which I saw on one of my first sleepovers. I think I have an interesting double feature to try and put together.

    Mr Cohen's death was a hard knock especially when it occurred. Thanks for the nice tribute.

  2. How horror movies haven't utilised Leonard's 'Who by Fire' - I'm thinking particularly of the 'Final Destination' series - is a mystery to me.

    RIP, Mr C.