what we learned by making a film about his life

‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’ is a new documentary exploring the life of the famous songwriter and poet. He does this through the prism of his most famous work: the 1984 folk classic “Hallelujah”. best-loved in music and one of the artists’ favorite covers. 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 there was something going on in the room. I realized I didn’t want to continue the conversation because that there was this song that I had never heard before playing in the background.

“Then I saw Leonard in concert in 2009 when he came to the San Francisco Bay Area for what would eventually be a five-year world tour. The moment he took the stage – and you you can see it in the movie – he got down on his knees and started singing “Hallelujah”. It was the first time I really heard the song. To me, it means a different thing depending on the day I listening to it, or who sings it, because a good cover of ‘Hallelujah’ is something the artist has made his or her own. Leonard Cohen through the specific lens of ‘Hallelujah’ was a new way to find out who Leonard was.

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

Daniel Geller: “Our documentary has always focused on the idea that song is the best way to examine Leonard Cohen’s journey through his life as a songwriter. We tried to understand those themes that are evident in the song: holiness, rupture, excitement and pure love, doubt and certainty.

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

“By going through his notebooks, you can understand how the encoding process went. He would change one word, another word, and then change that word or that word until the whole verse or verse clicks into place in what appears to be something chiseled in stone atop Mount Sinai. He was still there.

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

“It took a year and a half to get the publishing rights to the song. Sony was quick to say yes, but their price was way beyond anything independent documentary makers can afford. It took me a while to bring them down to earth. ‘Hallelujah’ is among the top five earners in the entire Sony Publishing catalog, so it’s no wonder they were a little temperamental.

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

“While making the film, I also learned that Leonard was a hard-working craftsman. He took the process of refinement so seriously over such a long period of time, and it resulted in something extraordinary. poet’s instinct to make every word count, creating a multiplicity of meaning that was close to his heart. Leonard said, “Do you think most people take that long to write a pop song?” We tried to take a similar approach with film.

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

Golden : “When we started the movie, I had no idea how funny Leonard was. His sense of humor was so funny and dry that it could go over people’s heads at times. He was also a man incredibly deep, who worked on himself every day. He was very aware that he was on a journey, whether spiritual or carnal. He had a sense of grace and gratitude – and it grew and is evident even when you see him on stage in the late 70s.”

Gel: “Leonardo spoke a lot about his spiritual search. He spent six years at a Zen retreat on Mount Baldy in California. He tried a lot of things. He briefly flirted with Scientology. After Mount Baldy, he went to India and studied with a guru, a master. It was less about looking for some kind of connection with God than looking for a connection within himself. He wanted to understand why there was such chaos and darkness within him. There was still a resonating presence in his heart, a feeling that there was something that needed to be healed.

Golden : “Leonard says in the film, ‘there was a moment towards the end of touring with [1992 album] ‘The Future’ where I just felt like I drank too much and life seemed pretty bleak…maybe I have nothing left in showbusiness.’ So I feel like something happened on Mount Baldy that helped him out of that depression.

Gel: “My overall impression of him is that of an artist who needed to express himself, rather than someone looking to become a star. He didn’t acquire much beyond a desk, a chair and a dining table.

Golden : “When it comes to songwriters, there are very few who are as respected as Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, but rare are those who have written lyrics as poetic as songs. And the fact that he was also very honest about how hard it was for him to do what he called “blacking out those pages” made Leonard so reassuring to artists, regardless of their medium. His life confirms that art takes work, and that’s okay.

As said to Mark Beaumont.

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