The Story of a Song: ‘Hallelujah’ was special to Cohen until the end

By Bridgette M. Redman

It was an off-handed question at a dinner party.

“Someone asked if we’d ever considered making a documentary about a song,” says Dayna Goldfine, the co-director and creator of “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” the film opening in Phoenix on August 5.

As that idea percolated, she and her husband and co-director Dan Geller saw Cohen perform his seminal piece live. The image of him down on his knees squeezing every bit of soul from “Hallelujah” at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California, was burned into their consciousness.

That made it clear that, yes, they would make the documentary and it would be about “Hallelujah” and its creator, Cohen.

While their biopic focuses on the song, it also reveals how the song came to be, something only possible by taking a deep look at its creator — the poet, the composer, the singer, the artist.

“We knew from the beginning that the song encapsulated so much of Leonard’s concerns and preoccupations that we would look at the mind of Leonard Cohen and the spirit of Leonard Cohen, through that one song,” Geller says.

“We knew that we were going to talk to other singer-songwriters who covered the song to figure out what it is about the song that they connect to.

“It really came more toward Leonard’s seeking and spiritual journey and looking at the influences that gave him the ability to write a song like that.”

The film starts with Cohen transitioning from writer and poet to singer-songwriter in the 1960s when he was in his 30s. Using archival recordings interspersed with newer interviews, the film heavily features Cohen’s words and images of him. When Geller and Goldfine started working on the film in 2014, Cohen approved the project, though he did not participate in it.

“He wanted everything at arm’s length,” Geller said. “When we approached Leonard, with the advice of Alan Light (the author of the book ‘The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”’) about how to approach Leonard — don’t ask for an interview; he’s not giving any more.

“Don’t ask for anything, just ask for his tacit blessing, which was required for us to go to Sony Music Publishing and get a license to use the song.”

They received his blessing, but he died in 2016, long before the film was finished. 

The Cohen estate opened their archives to the filmmakers and shared more than 400 of Cohen’s journals, along with photographs, performance footage and rare audio recordings and interviews.

Only once did they hear from Cohen, albeit indirectly. Dominique Isserman, a French photographer with whom he lived for much of the time he wrote “Hallelujah,” was staying with him in Los Angeles. As she was leaving for an interview with the directors, he told her not to answer any questions about whether it was her kitchen chair referenced in the song.

“Leonard always wanted his songs and his poems to be universal and not be pigeonholed and looked at as too literal,” Goldfine says. “So that made perfect sense. She came in laughing and relayed that information to us. We were like, ‘Yep, we’re on the same page.’”

At one point in the film, they ask people who they first heard sing “Hallelujah” and the answer that most frequently comes back is Jeff Buckley. Goldfine and Geller can relate.

“I’m guilty as charged,” says Goldfine, saying she heard Buckley’s version at a party and stopped what she was doing to listen.

She thought, like many others, Buckley had written it. Later, they saw Cohen in concert. “It wasn’t until that moment that I really got the song. Getting to see Leonard in his mid-70s deliver that song that he had worked on so closely and so hard and had shifted through the years — it was just heart-stopping.”

When Cohen recorded the song on the album “Various Positions,” the top executive at Columbia, who had already paid for the record, refused to release it. The song Cohen would become synonymous with floundered until others began to sing it.

Not that Cohen doubted what he had created. In an interview at the time he said, “The work is done. It’s really good. It’s impeccable. It’s all for the books. I feel I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me. My estate will swell. My name will flourish.”

While the filmmakers have a section on Buckley and the other people who covered his song — including interviews with the directors of “Shrek” — most of the film focuses on Cohen and the emotional and spiritual journey he took that not only made the song’s creation possible, but its evolution, changing lyrics and how it was a part of him until he died. 

They also revealed his personality as shared by those who knew him and his materials and journals. Goldfine says his sense of humor was a lovely surprise.

“The way that Columbia Records advertised his albums and the way that early critics talked about his first several albums, he was described as the philosopher of doom and gloom, the guy who makes music to slit your wrists by,” Goldfine says.

“Here we are looking intently at archival interview after archival interview and remembering his amazing sense of humor that was on full display during those concerts that we were lucky enough to go to. We truly got to present Leonard Cohen to the world through our film as a man who is much more than the doom and gloom guy and who actually possessed one of the most incredibly witty senses of humor.”

Geller describes it as a privilege to look through the journals and see the evolution of “Hallelujah” — the many verses he wrote and the minute adjustments he was constantly making.

“We’d heard the stories about 150 verses,” Geller says.

“The surprise to me was that he would take a line and keep working the line over and over with page after page of minor variations. It might go on and then no further work on that line. Then two or three notebooks later, he’s back at it, revising it again. To see many of those drafts of certain couplets that we’ve come to know so well that were fantastic in slightly altered versions — but to see him so specifically refining and toying with and making exactly the line that we came to know, that was a revelation. It’s clearly a poet’s mind at work.”

While they recognize many have stopped going to the theater since the pandemic, they encourage patrons to experience this movie in the cinema. 

“It’s about mortality. It’s about a life well lived,” Geller says.

“There’s this communal experience. Because this film particularly is emotional and you’re watching a man go from age 30 right to his end. … It’s (a way) to consider our own mortality and our own joy of living at that same time. That’s pretty darn good.” 

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, A Song”

In theaters