Choosing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah For Watchmen
In the just released film version of the classic comic, Watchmen, two of the superheroes, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, are shown in a – um, let’s call it a vigorous sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Zack Snyder, the Director of Watchmen, addresses that choice in an interview with James Parker that appeared in the Boston Phoenix:
James Parker: The sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II is pretty great — the boots, the zips. And you’ve got Leonard Cohen doing “Hallelujah” over it.
Zack Snyder: Well, I originally had a different version of “Hallelujah” on that scene — it was the version by Allison Crowe, and it was really beautiful. Too beautiful, as it turned out, because when I showed it to my buddies, they were like, “Wow, you really mean this, this love scene.” So I was like, okay, that didn’t work. But with the Leonard Cohen, in that moment, it’s a little sadder of a song, it’s a little bit more twisted, it’s a little more broken, which expresses to me what’s going on in that scene, between those two characters.
The Internet Goes Bipolar On “Hallelujah” In Watchmen
To formulate an analysis of the professional and public response to Zack’s choice that would be convincing if presented in confident tones and with a certain arrogance despite being statistically invalid and profoundly non-scientific, I’ve excerpted the pertinent portions from online reports from film critics and bloggers, methodically chosen on the basis of – well, they were the first ones I found.
The sentiments expressed are pronounced and form an interesting pattern. My speculations on the reasons behind and implications of this phenomenon can be found at the end of this post.
The main sex scene in Watchmen finally has Night Owl and Silk Spectre get together in the “Owl Ship.” This sex scene is somehow scored to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as if to play the sex scene for a laugh.
~ Robert Dougherty, Watchmen Sex Scene Ranges from Hot to Campy
Nite Owl’s and Silk Spectre II’s kinky clinch on a hover-ship is hot and ironic, thanks to the croaky tones of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
~ Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
Watchmen’ features this year’s hands-down winner of the bad movie sex award, superhero division: a moment of bliss that takes place on board Nite Owl’s nifty little airship, accompanied by Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’
~ A.O. Scott, The New York Times
A tip of the musical cap to Snyder for using Leonard Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah,” instead of one of the many covers usually employed, to underscore an extremely passionate coupling of Nite Owl and Silk Spectre.
~ Joe Holleman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Latex-clad Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) cuts a tidy figure but botches line after line—and her trouser-wiltingly bad sex scene with Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) makes X Factor’s Christmas single only the SECOND worst thing to happen to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
~ Robbie Collin, News Of The World
The music choices are moldy (please save me from hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a film again)
~ Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger
Writing about music that folks have heard in other contexts is tough enough, but thankfully the mix tosses in a few unexpected swerves. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” resonates with prescient sadness, while both “Pruit Igoe & Prophecies (by The Philip Glass Ensemble) and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (this version from the Budapest Symphony Orchestra) provide a classic music sensibility that doesn’t feel at all out of place.
~Spence D., IGN – Watchmen: Music From The Motion Picture
The strengths of the film are the strengths of Alan Moore: ingenious, psychologically resonant stories full of breathtaking images and set pieces. Watchmen isn’t an empty husk like The Spirit or a cinderblock piece of myth-making like Dark Knight. The character flaws extend to erectile dysfunction for one superhero; when it turns out that he just needs to beat someone up beforehand, Watchmen shows him conquering his problem to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’.
~ Siobhan Synnot, Scotsman News
It was worse than I feared: “99 Luftballoons” made everyone in my nearly sold out midnight screening snicker. Plus “The Sounds of Silence” during the funeral. Plus “Hallelujah” while Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) have sex in Archie.
~ Gina Carbone, Seacoastonline.com
Yet this approach also results in the movie’s absolute nadir: a sex scene, set to – groan – Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” that gets jammed between earnestness and parody and ends up just monumentally vulgar.
~ Ty Burr, Boston Globe
Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg (aka Nite Owl II) is startling in his paunchiness and impotence. His cure for bedroom fatigue: Whip out those superhero getups (to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” one in a series of inappropriate song choices).
~ Lee Grant, San Diego Union Tribune
But oddly enough, it’s emotionally pure tracks like Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill” and Nina Simone’s “Pirate Jenny” that resonate above the others – partially due to the fact that, unlike the others, we haven’t been beaten over the head with these songs through countless movies, TV shows and ads. I’d include Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as well, but it’s also been ravaged by overexposure thanks to a raft of hip, post-modern filmmakers
~ Gregory Burkart, Fear.net
The most surprising aspect was the best use on a soundtrack of a Leonard Cohen song. I was pleasantly surprised he was on the soundtrack at all. Jackie Earle Haley is to Rorschach what Heath Ledger was to The Joker: Born to play that part.
Despite some tonal shifts and odd choices (Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? During a sex scene?), “Watchmen” delivers the goods.
~ Rafer Guzman, Newsday, reprinted in Chicago Tribune
The cameras linger over severed limbs and broken bones, but the closest thing we get to an intense emotional moment is a softcore sex scene set to (*rolls eyes*) Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
~ Whitney Matheson, USA Today (Pop Candy)
Bloggers were, as a rule, less circumspect than the journalists:
Saw Watchmen today… Won’t say anything about the movie itself, except that it had a pretty shitty soundtrack, and that Leonard Cohen is ruined for me forever.
~ Brandon Lee http://uberblee.livejournal.com/155503.html
And I loved how they played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during the sex scene – it was so fitting.
~ Wonderwoman, Watchmen (movie review)
The scene in the sky, in Archie with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was confusing for me. On one hand I thought it was completely corny, and on the other hand it really made me want to get laid to that song.
Following a spell of erectile dysfunction on the sofa, Nite Owl finally mounts Silk Spectre in the owl ship, swapping gratuitous poses for the camera as Leonard Cohen throatily warbles something wretched. It isn’t sexy or sweet,
~ Matt, Superelectric
I liked the music most of the time, but the Leonard Cohen lovemaking didn’t work for me.
~ abbigshmail, THIS IS A TANGENT
Meanwhile, the whole thing is propelled by a solid gold soundtrack, with songs that land on their cues like musical superheroes. Dylan, Hendrix, Simon and Garfunkel. . . and when Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah looms into the sex scene, I quietly died and went to heaven, gratified that they chose the original, not the trendier versions by Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright.
Dan and Laurie’s loltastic and horrific drawn out sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I watched it through my fingers and could not stop laughing once Dan got his thrust-muscle workin’.
I agree the “Hallelujah” sex scene was a bit long, but it was uncomfortable intentionally. It was supposed to call attention to the absurdity of Dan’s condition, that he has to put on a goofy costume and be Nite Owl to get it up.
~ Avrithor, commenting at http://www.veronicabelmont.com/
How I had no idea there was any Leonard Cohen on the soundtrack, and then when the first notes of “Hallelujah” came through the speakers, I gasped with joy. My husband–who knows what he has married and knew Cohen was coming up–just chuckled and said “yeah.”
~ Katherine Coble, Just Another Pretty Farce
The sex scene, despite being a moment of OMFG finally in the comic (hence the perfectly hilarious use of “Hallelujah” many reviewers don’t seem to have a sense of humor about for whatever reason) went on for way too long.
Non-Scientific Explanation Of These Non-Scientific Results
Ongoing readers may recall that in Movies, Music, Musings, Mortality, & Memorials, I wrote with some enthusiasm about a congruent use of music in another film, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs:
The notion of Nat King Cole’s lovely “Unforgettable” playing while a beating is being delivered triggered in me thoughts of Quentin Tarantino’s use of “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel as background for the torture and shooting of the policeman.
The Unbearable Coolness Of Being Tarantino
And from that scene with its Tarantino trademark violence, it is only a short jump to the Reservoir Dogs scene that has for years been my designated coolest movie scene ever – the iconic Rat-Pack walk set to the jazzy Little Green Bag.
My evaluation of the effectiveness of that soundtrack is, while a tad more effusive than most critiques, is within the mainstream of opinion.
So, why is the response to the use of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in Watchmen far more polarized with many vehemently negative reviews?
My best guess is that the polarization tracks back primarily to the intense feelings folks have about Leonard Cohen and/or Watchmen (the comic). Stuck In The Middle With You and Little Green Bag may have been more acceptable in Reservoir Dogs because, at least in my crowd, George Baker Selection and Stealers Wheel don’t evoke as much passion.
A different good guess is proffered by Adrian du Plessis,1 who, in an email exchange, asked, rhetorically, “Is it, in part at least, that folks readily accept graphic violence but not sex?”
What If Zack Snyder Had Chosen The Less Broken, More Beautiful “Hallelujah?”
I’ll close this entry with a What if? question. As Zack Snyder noted in the interview excerpt at the first of this post, the original plan was to use Allison Crowe’s cover of “Hallelujah” in the soundtrack. The issue Adrian and I were discussing – without a discernible conclusion that either of us would be willing to endorse without all manner of disclaimers, qualifiers, and subjunctives – is how, if at all, the response to that music and that scene would have been different if the background to the sex scene between Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II had been Allison Crowe’s individual but respectful version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
For example, would those folks who loved Leonard Cohen’s own version of “Hallelujah” in Watchmen have been so devastatingly disappointed that a cover, any cover, no matter how well rendered, had been used that they would have turned from highly positive on the music to highly negative? Or would they have just been less enthusiastically positive? Or might some have been won over by Allison’s cover ( the audience, after all, would be interested in how the movie, including the music, works, not comparing versions of a song)?
Conversely, could using Allison Crowe’s adaptation of “Hallelujah” have proven less objectionable to any of those who so mightily lamented Cohen’s song being linked to that scene?
Assuming that I’m correct that Allison Crowe isn’t yet an icon like Leonard Cohen,2 would she have been a less charged source of music than Cohen and, if so, would that have been a good thing for the movie, a bad thing for the movie, or just a blander thing? Would it have had any effect at all?
Even more complicated is the question of the effect using Allison Crowe’s cover in the Watchmen would have had on her career. Is it possible that exposing an international audience of movie goers to a superb musical performance could break bad for the singer? What if that song, no matter how well done, is paired with a sex scene some members of that international audience will inevitably find repulsive? Could a song be effective as an element in a movie and simultaneously be detrimental to the singer’s career?
There are lots more variations and permutations of that issue, but you get the idea.
Making those complex calculations and decisions is impossibly difficult. That, no doubt, is why Adrian gets the big bucks.
If anyone who knows the right answers, please let me know.
Update: See also
- Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah In Zack Snyder’s Watchmen – Bizarre, Sublime, Nuked The Fridge?
- Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah As Watchmen Sex Scene Soundtrack – Debate Continues