What we learned about Leonard Cohen from making a documentary of his life

In their new film, directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller examine Pop's Poet Laureate through the lens of his greatest song

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ is a new documentary exploring the life of the acclaimed songwriter and poet. It does so through the prism of his most famous work: 1984 folk classic ‘Hallelujah’. Initially it achieved little mainstream success, but has since become one of music’s most-beloved ballads and a favourite for artists to cover. Here, directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller explain what making the film taught them about their idol.

Dayna Goldfine: “My ‘Hallelujah’ story started with Jeff Buckley – being at a dinner party in the early 2000s and feeling like something was going on in the room. I realised I didn’t want to continue the conversation because there was this song I’d never heard before that was playing in the background.

“Then I saw Leonard in concert in 2009 when he came through the San Francisco Bay Area on what was ultimately going to be a five-year world tour. The moment he took the stage – and you can see it in the film – he dropped to his knees and started singing ‘Hallelujah’. That was the first time that I truly heard the song. For me it means a different thing depending on the day that I’m listening to it, or who is singing it because a good cover of ‘Hallelujah’ is something that the artist has made their own. Choosing to look at Leonard Cohen through the specific prism of ‘Hallelujah’ was a novel way of getting into who Leonard was.”

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Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ was initially poorly-received.. CREDIT: Sony Pictures

Daniel Geller: “Our documentary was always focused around the idea that the song is the best pathway into looking at the journey of Leonard Cohen throughout his songwriting life. We tried to figure out these themes that are evident in the song: holiness, brokenness, horniness and pure love, doubt and certainty.

“Working with the song, as we did for so many years once we got Leonard’s blessing in 2014, I began to appreciate it more and more. Living with those lyrics and really letting them settle into the depths of my mind, I began to appreciate just how accessible and sophisticated they are. It’s his poetry. There’s so much that is encoded in every word.

“Looking through his notebooks you can understand how the encoding process took place. He would change a word, another word, then change this word or that word until the whole couplet or verse would snap into what seems like something chiselled in stone on the top of Mount Sinai. It was always there.

Hallelujah
Cohen during his later years in the 2010s. CREDIT: Sony

“It took a year and a half to clear the publishing rights to the song. Sony was quick to say yes, but their price was far beyond anything independent documentary filmmakers can afford. I took a long time to bring them down to earth. ‘Hallelujah’ is among the top five revenue-generators in the entire Sony Publishing catalogue, so no wonder they were a little skittish.

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“The irony is that the song was rejected by the same label that now realises its immense value. It’s ubiquitous now, but I don’t think people feel that it’s been cheapened. I can’t tell you the number of times that, at a screening of our film, one person has come up with tears in their eyes and said, ‘that song is so important to me, it was sung at my husband’s funeral’. And then we’d turn around and there’d be someone on the other side of us saying, ‘that was the song I picked for my wedding’. It’s like an emotional shortcut. Nancy Bacal, Leonard’s close friend, talked about the ‘broken hallelujah’, which is this inextricable linkage between the beauty and the brokenness.

“In making the film I also learned that Leonard was a relentless craftsman. He took the process of refinement so seriously over such a protracted amount of time, and it resulted in something extraordinary. He had the poet’s instinct to make every word count, creating a multiplicity of meaning which was important to him. Leonard said: ‘You think most people take this much time writing a pop song?’ We tried to take a similar approach with the film.”

Hallelujah
‘Hallelujah’ has become Cohen’s best-known work. CREDIT: Sony

Goldfine: “When we started the film, I wasn’t aware how funny Leonard was. His sense of humour was so droll and dry that it could sometimes go over people’s heads. He was an incredibly deep man too, who worked every single day on himself. He was very aware that he was on a journey, whether it was spiritual or whether it was carnal. He had a sense of grace and gratitude – and that grew and is evident even when you see him on stage in his late 70s.”

Geller: “Leonard talked about his spiritual search a lot. He spent six years at the zen retreat on Mount Baldy in California. He tried a lot of things. He flirted briefly with Scientology. After Mount Baldy he went to India and studied with a guru, a master. It was less about seeking some sort of connection to God and more about seeking a connection inside himself. He wanted to figure out why there was such chaos and darkness inside of him. There was always some resonating presence in his heart, some sense that there was something that needed to be healed.”

Goldfine: “Leonard says in the film, ‘there was a point in time towards the end of doing the tours with [1992 album] ‘The Future’ where I just felt like I was drinking too much and life looked pretty bleak… maybe there’s nothing left for me in showbusiness.’ So I feel that something did happen up on Mount Baldy that helped him to lift that depression.”

Geller: “My overall impression of him is of an artist who needed to express themselves, rather than someone who was seeking to become a star. He did not acquire much beyond a desk, a chair and a dining room table.”

Goldfine: “As songwriters go, there are very few who are as respected as Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, but there aren’t many who wrote lyrics that were as much poetry as songs. And the fact that he was also really honest about how difficult it was for him to do what he called ‘blackening those pages’ made Leonard so reassuring to artists in any medium. His life confirms that art takes work, and that’s okay.”

As told to Mark Beaumont.

‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ is released by Sony Pictures in UK cinemas on September 16

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