The story behind Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is arguably the most unique and unconventional in popular music history. The track first appeared on the singer-songwriter’s 1984 album, Various Positions, which was rejected by his longtime label Columbia Records and faded into obscurity. Since then, the song had undergone a number of revisions by Cohen himself and then built a gradual awareness thanks to cover versions by John Cale and, most notably, Jeff Buckley. Then the song’s use in the 2001 movie Shrek further expanded its popularity among a wider audience. To this day, numerous renditions of “Hallelujah” have been performed by established artists as well as aspiring ones on TV singing competitions—and it continues to be a go-to spiritual song for a variety of occasions, especially during times of national crisis and mourning.
The origins of “Hallelujah,” and how it became a representation of Cohen’s life and music, are explored in a new documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, which recently premiered in New York and Los Angeles. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, the film features archival footage of Cohen and performances from his final tours prior to his death in 2016—as well as interviews with those who knew the artist (among them record producer John Lissauer, singers Judy Collins and Sharon Robinson, photographer Dominique Issermann, and journalist Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman) and musicians who had covered the song (including Brandi Carlile, Rufus Wainwright, Regina Spektor and Eric Church).
“From the beginning,” says Geller, “we really knew that the song was the prism through which to look at Leonard’s life—more his spiritual life, his preoccupations, the questions that he had. So it gave us a lot of freedom in terms of sketching his life. But the real focus is Leonard the man asking the deep questions about the purpose of life, the challenges of life, the holiness of life, and the brokenness of life.”
Adds Goldfine: “The question I think that we posed to ourselves and then to the audience for this film is: why is it that Leonard Cohen was the only human being in the universe who we think could have possibly come up with the song “Hallelujah”? And to understand that question, one needs to understand something about the man himself and the spiritual journey that he went through, and also his other body of work—which he says in the middle of the film, ‘Everyone’s work is all of a piece.’ And if you think about that, then that’s why we have 22 other Leonard Cohen songs [in the documentary], because it’s all of these things that add up to Leonard Cohen, the man who could create this universal hymn.”
The idea behind Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song began when a friend, the writer David Thomson, suggested during a dinner that they do a film based on a single song. “Literally within 10 minutes at the dinner table,” recalls Goldfine, “I turned to Dan and I said, ‘You know, that question that David posed a few minutes ago—I think we could do a film about Leonard Cohen and “Hallelujah.”’ That’s the one song that I could see occupying our attention for the years that we know it would take to make a documentary, and that’s the one artist that I think it would be gratifying to plumb for that length of time.”
“We didn’t know the crazy trajectory of that song when Dayna and I first started talking about it later that night after dinner,” says Geller. “We didn’t know that the incredible story part of the song. We know the incredible power of the song. So that’s part of what kicked us into high gear—to discover there was a cinema plot just sitting there waiting for us.”
Both Geller and Goldfine had seen Leonard Cohen perform “Hallelujah” in Oakland, California, during the period when the singer made his return to the stage while in his mid-70s after a hiatus. “It was such a heartfelt, spiritual rendition of that song,” Goldfine recalls. “It was unforgettable.”
“I’ve never seen Leonard Cohen perform and I didn’t know much about the catalog of songs that he had written and recorded, which is astounding,” Geller says. “To then watch that breadth of career on stage right up through when he was still writing and recording during those tours basically, that was an introduction to a master artist. If we could use the song as the excuse in a way to get familiar with his preoccupations, his spiritual journey, his character—and also 22 other songs that are in the movie—then we’ve got people on the hook in a way to really appreciate Leonard Cohen.”
Soon after the idea, the filmmakers came across music journalist Alan Light’s 2012 book The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah.” “We started reading the book and within a week we were like, ‘Oh wow, there’s definitely something there,’” recalls Goldfine. “After approaching Alan just briefly with a quick little note, it quickly became clear that we had some simpatico going on and that it would be fun to work on a project together.”
Like its subject matter, the new documentary initially had a somewhat complicated road to fruition. Before Geller and Goldfine entered the picture, Light, who also served as a consulting producer on the new film, was previously approached by other filmmakers about doing a “Hallelujah” documentary based on his book. “I really had three questions for [Dayna and Dan] that they had to address if we were going to make any serious movement forward,” Light remembers. “The first was—and this was when Leonard was still alive—‘You understand Leonard is not going to be [interviewed] in this film. What you’re asking for are his blessing and his support. But anything that you’re doing that’s contingent on, it’s going to be Leonard Cohen telling the story of “Hallelujah.”’
“Number two was: ‘You can’t just do like a VH1 Top 10 “Hallelujah” countdown.’ And number three was: ‘Be aware that the licensing, the publishing, the business end of this is going tp be the most complicated thing you ever deal with in your career.’ Because here’s a song that any time anybody goes near it, there’s a big check for the publishing company. You’re going to have to go to them and say, ‘We want to use it 25 times in a movie.’ That’s going to be really tough.”
Ironically, approval from Cohen’s lawyer/manager Robert Kory came relatively quickly compared to the filmmakers’ negotiations with Sony Music, which controlled the rights to the singer’s publishing—an issue that took about two years to resolve. “They [Sony] initially came out with an incredibly expensive license,” recalls Geller. “But ultimately we educated each other about the song—Sony Publishing, Robert, Leonard, Dayna and I—and came to a reasonable agreement for an independent documentary.”
Afterward, the door opened for Geller and Goldfine in not only interviewing those who knew Cohen and/or had an association with the song, but also gaining access to the archival material from the singer’s estate, including his notebooks and journals. “We met with Hal Willner [the film’s music producer] and Ratso Sloman, and our universe began to expand,” says Geller, “people who were connected with Leonard as creators and friends. And it was very clear from Robert and Leonard in those first two years that we were not to ask for anything. Slowly but surely, as we began to show Robert material—Leonard had passed by then—we began to build up a common understanding of trust in each other. Over time, that yielded incredibly privileged access to Leonard’s journals and notebooks, photographs, the concert recordings themselves. But that took a long time.”
“It’s a testament to them how much they were able to win over Robert and the estate that he made the notebooks available to them,” Light says of Geller and Goldfine’s diligence. “For the first time, we can see inside letters notebooks and the actual hands-on drafting of the song, and clearly the performance footage that we’ve never seen before. Again, what do you do to make this work as a film, it’s not just stringing together a bunch of versions of the song. It’s understandable that they spend less time on all the other covers and versions. They can’t spend the time doing that in a movie. That would just turn into, again, a long highlight reel.”
The release of the film, which will expand on its current theatrical run, coincides with a new Cohen compilation, Hallelujah and Songs From His Albums, as well as an updated version of Light’s book. As demonstrated by the film, the popularity of “Hallelujah” remains unabated six years after Cohen’s death. Most notably, singer Yolanda Adams performed the song at the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool last year in remembrance of the many lives lost to COVID-19.
“The thing that was so gratifying to me when I was working on the book,” says Light, “is talking to regular people about how this song has been there in their lives. It is so easy for us to get jaded and cynical and to think, ‘Yeah, music isn’t important like it used to be. It’s just a commodity.’ But anybody that I mentioned the song to had some story: ‘We played it at my uncle’s funeral.’ ‘We played it when my daughter was born.’ ‘It was the first dance at our wedding.’ It was so extraordinary to hear the continuing power that a song could have. That was certainly the thing that I took away from spending all of this time on it.
“It’s one thing to hear from the artists, from the people who cover it. That’s one piece of the story. Everything Leonard put into the song, the label rejecting it, its disappearance, its resurgence—all of that is a fascinating story on its own, But at the heart of that is what is it of this song that connects so powerfully with regular people that they turn to it year after year, now decade after decade for these moments in their life. That’s what this is all about.”
On what viewers should take away from their film and its subject matter, Goldfine says: “It’s the story of this man’s spiritual journey, and Leonard was a man who never stopped working on himself. That I think is really relevant today. Judy Collins says something towards the end of the movie: ‘You’re getting so much from being with Leonard.’ At the time it was with his concerts. But I would say, hopefully being with Leonard for the period it takes to watch this film, listening to him on one of his albums—that it’s feeding into your own spiritual journey. If watching this film can help someone’s spiritual journey wherever they are in the world, that would be incredibly gratifying.”
“To see how “Hallelujah” itself evolve by Leonard himself from 1984 when he first started singing [the song],” says Geller, “we get two or three other times in the movie where we see him age and sing it and sing it with different feelings and different verses. That’s a revelation, but there are 22 other songs in the movie. So it’s a real way to begin understanding the incredible scope of Leonard’s work as a recording artist and enjoy hopefully a pathway into getting his other albums. So I hope also that people gain an appreciation for the breadth of Leonard’s beautiful music.”
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is currently playing in select cities. The new updated edition of Alan Light’s The Holy or the Broken is available now through booksellers.