Updated: Sep 2
Two significantly different songs inspire separate documentaries this summer, proving that just a few minutes of performance can lead to decades worth of impact. Don McLean’s “American Pie” changed radio by repeatedly playing its full nine-minute run in 1971—sixty 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 Plus), The Day the Music Died provides historical backdrop for “American Pie,” though most 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 nineteen-fifties singers gave their final concert.
While filmmakers emphasize a story-telling 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 towards 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 the streets of Spain’s Santiago de Compostella the night I finished walking the same Camino that 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 work. In both cases, the single song opens itself to each line being sung by a different artist, from mega-star to street musician, all edited together to create yet another memorable performance.