[NEEDLE DROP] “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen in ‘Watchmen’

Artwork by Caroline Madden

A needle drop is more than just the use of a popular song in a film—it’s an affecting moment that ignites our senses, bringing the visual medium to artistic heights. “Needle Drop” is a monthly column that will explore such moments, looking at how a variety of films across genres use pre-existing songs to colour a scene.

Watchmen has numerous memorable needle drops that help establish the 1960s–1980s time period, guiding the audience through the turbulent Vietnam War and the subsequent decade of greed with songs such as “The Sound of Silence,” “All Along the Watchtower,” and “99 Luftballoons.” But there is one notable needle drop that has drawn the most controversy: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s sex scene. Paste Magazine lambasted the sequence as “unabashedly terrible” and “one of the worst cinematic sex scenes of all time.” Other critics were divided, with interpretations ranging from “hot and ironic,” “extremely passionate,” to “trouser-willingly bad” and “monumentally vulgar.”

The scene occurs when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre are on a celebratory high after performing superhero work for the first time in eight years. Once again being the object of mere mortals’ awe and wonder rejuvenates and endows them with a supercilious sexual prowess that they did not have previously. In an earlier scene where they attempted to have sex, Nite Owl suffered from impotence brought on by his clumsy nebishness and middle-aged paunch. However, as their idealised (namely, costumed) selves, they are vital and fearless. The couple gets swept up in the moment and ravage each other. 

When Silk Spectre returns from the burning building, Nite Owl justifies their impulsive (and illegal) heroic theatrics by noting, “World War III could start tomorrow,” and taking Silk Spectre in his arms. This line cues the music’s deep, satin tones and Cohen’s melting chocolate voice. The theatrical ballad overlays a salacious shot where Silk Spectre unzips her leather latex suit. Against the cartoonishly large glow of the moon (as in the song, Silk Spectre’s beauty in the moonlight overthrows him) she slowly gyrates on top of Nite Owl—while still wearing her thigh-high boots. 

The angelic chorus’ joyous repetition of “Hallelujah,” celebrates the couple’s sexual union and mutual pleasure, one that builds towards Silk Spectre’s dramatic orgasm where she presses a button to ignite The Owlship’s flames, piquing the curiosity of the human’s below. This gag has been derided for its cheesiness, but it merely underscores the ridiculousness that these two characters are only able to successfully make love while floating in the clouds in their superhero disguises. Cohen himself even deemed the song as “a hallelujah to the orgasm,” so perhaps Snyder’s correlation is not so left field.

For Snyder, “[I]n 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.” Cohen’s craggy voice expresses the characters’ strange, pathological unhappiness with their powerless civilian lives. Uncomfortable with their true selves, they are only able to achieve sexual satisfaction after engaging in superheroic exploits. As in the song, these are two lonely, unfeeling characters searching for affection and an interpersonal connection. However, this somber interpretation was lost on many audiences as Snyder leans more heavily into histrionics. 

Instead, “Hallelujah” adds a (knowing) irony to the scene, a comical element that, when paired with Snyder’s kinky melodrama, removes some of the scene’s melancholic poignancy. The audacious song choice is jarring, but it does underscore the ridiculousness that, bored by the mundanity of their ordinary lives, these characters are only able to connect while escaping into childish fantasies. Like the song, Snyder’s scene conflates sex with religion as his godlike characters are turned on by their own omnipotence. The hammy shots and Cohen’s spiritual sounds are a conscious choice by Snyder to reflect the characters’ self-mythologization and aggrandization.

by Caroline Madden

Caroline is the author of Springsteen as Soundtrack. Her favourite films include Dog Day AfternoonBaby It’s YouInside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She is the Editor in Chief of Video Librarian and does social media for Passion River Films. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss. 

Categories: Needle Drop

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