RIP Leonard Cohen: How He Made Movies Sing
Art and Experience: Prolific musician Leonard Cohen left a cinematic legacy along with his 50-year musical one.
Singer and poet Leonard Cohen, who passed away yesterday at age 82, was widely heralded for his moving, moody songbook and 14 studio albums—which were further paid tribute to by the thousands of cover versions across the world. Less well known is his work’s widespread presence in film soundtracks.
Of course, you’re likely aware that it’s Rufus Wainwright’s gorgeous cover of “Hallelujah” that defines the Shrek soundtrack, but Cohen’s soundtrack influence goes much further than that. IMDB lists the singer as having no less than 242 soundtrack credits, including recent favorites like Pete’s Dragon (“So Long, Marianne”), Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Basquiat (“Hallelujah”) Pump Up the Volume (“Everybody Knows”), and many television shows.
Perhaps Cohen’s music was so popular in movies because each song also told a complex story.
There were even several films made about Cohen covering live performances and his career; most recently, Lian Lunson’s documentary Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which premiered at Sundance in 2005.
Perhaps Cohen’s music was so popular in movies because each song also told a complex story. As a New York Times memorial video pointed out, “Hallelujah” was used in film in “moments of reverence and of mourning, of triumph and of romance.” His songs did not mandate one way to feel. Neither do the best movies.
Filmmakers can take another storytelling cue from Cohen’s music. He remained popular for decades even though he didn’t gloss over or candy-coat reality in his lyrics. While recognizing the beauty in the world, he also leaned into—and even celebrated—its pain and darkness.
His words about songwriting in a 1995 interview can apply to our own filmmaking work: “A song that is useful, that touches somebody, must be measured by that utility alone.”