NEW YORK — Everyone with a drop of cultural awareness knows there was a sacred chord that King David played that pleased the Lord. It’s the opening line to “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s song initially recorded in 1984.
The song — a modern hymn if ever there was one — is ubiquitous in singing competition shows, movies (from “Shrek” to “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”), and has been deployed for poignant political moments on both the left and right. It’s been covered countless times (here’s 50 of ’em), but what’s so striking is that when Cohen first put the tune to wax it was such a dud his label rejected it.
The story of this song is a wild one, so much so that documentarians Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine recognized there was enough material for a film — “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song.” Naturally, it wouldn’t work without a towering central figure, the Jewish-Canadian poet troubadour who seems to have lived 15 different lives in the span of one, as well as a circle of fascinating side players, like Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley, and New York rock raconteur Larry “Ratso” Sloman.
The history of the song “Hallelujah” is a microcosmic view of Cohen and his struggles with his art, but also the mystery of the creative process. (“Hallelujah” had upwards of 180 verses across various versions, Sloman says, and it continued to evolve after it was recorded.) Cohen’s work followed an unusual trajectory: He had a whole career as a poet before he ever picked up a guitar, and it looked, for a while, that he was retired, living for years on a Zen retreat. A bad financial manager who embezzled all his holdings, however, got him back on the road, where he performed, in triumph, around the world as an elder statesman.
Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s film — which opens July 1 in New York and Los Angeles — mixes new commentary with older interviews and clips, many of which have never been seen or heard before. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
The Times of Israel: Other than one on “Amazing Grace” I can’t think of a movie where the subject is a specific song. When did you have that “aha!” moment?
Dan Geller: The song is the MacGuffin. It’s our way to look at Leonard’s spiritual quest, but outside of a soup-to-nuts biography. Since the song itself contains so many of his passions and contradictions, it works as a path. Plus there’s the plot device: the struggle he had in writing it, the shocking rejection by the record label, then its crazy path to an international hymn. There are certainly documentaries that investigate the songwriting process — like the “Song Exploder” series — but this is a mix of biography and a “song movie.”
Dayna Goldfine: Leonard’s life is so vast, so looking at him through the prism of that song frees us up. We start when he’s older, but still explain why he was the only person who could have written that song. At first I worried a documentary about a song would be boring. Then we saw Leonard Cohen in Oakland, and I’ll never forget the moment when he got to his knees to sing “Hallelujah.”
Do you remember the first time you heard “Hallelujah”?
Geller: Yes, the [extended 2003] Jeff Buckley “Live at Sin-é” collection. I put that CD on repeat. It was so haunting, it drilled into my head.
Goldfine: For me it was at a friend’s house, in 2000, and he put on Jeff Buckley’s CD [“Grace,” released 1994] and I remember saying, “Oh my God, what is that?” I immediately went to Amoeba Records on Haight Street in San Fransisco to buy a few Jeff Buckley CDs.
I’m gonna show off a little. As a college freshman in New York, not only did I see Jeff Buckley perform at Sin-é, a tiny place, but I once saw him walk in off the street, while someone else was singing, make his way to the back, pour himself an espresso, then walk out.
Geller: [Club owner] Shane Doyle told us he actually worked there for a while.
Goldfine: I’m sure they welcomed him coming in like that. If he’s gonna come in, make himself coffee, then leave, people are going to want to see that, and talk about it.
So prior to Buckley, you knew Leonard Cohen, but not “Hallelujah”?
Geller: Yes, if I had heard the song, it was only in passing. I more knew the “So Long, Marianne” and “Suzanne” songs, from when I was in college radio.
Goldfine: Yes, “Suzanne” and the early albums.
There was a recent museum exhibit in Montreal, San Fransisco, and New York and about Leonard Cohen, also a documentary focused on his time on the Greek island of Hydra, plus there’s a new book about his time in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. There’s a great quote in your film where he says “I feel like I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me.” I do feel like he’s bigger than ever now.
Goldfine: And he was 50 when he said that.
Not to get too high and mighty about it, but you do have a responsibility to any artist to “do it right” with a film like this? When you hear him spell it out so bluntly with that quote, what goes through your head?
Goldfine: That line is precious to us for a number of reasons. It was part of Ratso’s tapes; no one had ever heard it. It never made it into one of his old articles. Also, he said it around the time of the “Various Positions” rejection — so he really was prescient. There were many times when we would look at his journal notes, or hear a tape, and just get chills.
I began each day at the editing equipment looking up at the sky — “Okay, Leonard, I am going to try to do you justice.”
Geller: We showed cuts to [Leonard Cohen Family Trust Manager] Robert Kory along the way. The Estate didn’t control the movie, but they were trusted advisors. When Robert first heard that line he laughed so hard. Which was a relief to me, because we knew we had to get it right. A story of a spiritual and artistic process is a delicate thing.
Goldfine: The editing was definitely intimidating. This was someone who spent a long time working on himself. I began each day at the editing equipment looking up at the sky — “Okay, Leonard, I am going to try to do you justice.”
Geller: And there actually was a skylight right above the editing system, so you can look up to the sky.
That’s how the light gets in.
Geller: I see what you did there.
Okay, so Larry “Ratso” Sloman. I’ve bumped into him here and there; I’m a New York Jew in media, and he and I share a lot of common interests. But most of the planet does not know who he is. Where the hell is Ratso’s documentary?
Geller: Ratso is sui generis. A passionate fan of music and a tremendous writer, whether his own work or as a ghostwriter. He is funny as hell and has a million stories to tell. His humor and analytical ability distill things well, so he’s a great interview. He really nails it. And nobody dresses like him — he goes to Hassidic neighborhoods to get silk maroon garments, and pulls it off.
Goldfine: When he first came to our attention, we read about him on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour. When they came through Montreal, Dylan asked him to go get Leonard —
Right, right, there’s a live version of “Isis” where you can hear Dylan say, “This is for Leonard, if he’s still here.”
Goldfine: So at this point we were working with Rachel Fox and Hal Willner as music supervisors, and I said, “Hey, Rachel, do you know this guy Ratso?” and she said, “He’s one of Hal’s best friends, I see him all the time, you wanna meet him?” So that’s how he ended up there. But he’s probably best known for his book “On The Road With Bob Dylan.”
Geller: I disagree. Probably the Mike Tyson book, plus being on the Howard Stern show. But also friends with Leonard Cohen. Not a niche guy!
Goldfine: You can see how persistent he is. When he handed us his cassette tapes, they went back to his very first phone call with him. A young kid in Queens, getting up around noon, following him around. He even said he was “like a stalker.” He sets the bar for tenacity.
I know you guys don’t speak for Leonard Cohen, but you are the only ones I can ask. When I think about his work, I think about authenticity, and, oftentimes, a minimalist approach. So what’s the deal with him and that Casio keyboard? It’s a real “choice,” as they say.
Goldfine: When we interviewed [music producer] John Lissauer for the film, he describes that moment of surprise. He calls Leonard’s music rich and intimate and tactile and then… what is this?
Geller: It’s a little post-disco, sonically.
Goldfine: John suggested that the cheap, stupid Casio allowed Leonard to create a beat.
Geller: It gets a groove going easier than an acoustic guitar. It was a different way of writing. Throughout Leonard’s life, he would regularly wonder if this is what he was supposed to be doing with his life, and if he was up to the task. So it expanded possibilities for him — he also was an early adaptor writing and even drawing on a Macintosh computer. He embraced technology.
Goldfine: It gave him autonomy. John, the first producer to hear him present songs on a Casio, thought, “Oh, you are just using this as a way to write your songs, but then you’ll leave it behind, right?” And Leonard wanted to use it. For “Various Positions,” though, John said if you want to use synthetic instruments, fine, but let’s not use the Casio, let’s use the more expensive Synclavier, which he had access to.
Judaism is an important part of Leonard Cohen’s story and the song. To some, I would imagine, he comes off as a Kohanic sage, it’s part of his appeal. There’s a fan in Iowa or Istanbul who’s never met a Jew, but gets an impression of Judaism through Leonard Cohen.
Geller: The sage quality comes from a few places. He is in that Kohanic line. He grew up steeped in it, and the searching aspect never left him. His searching, his need to question God that opened up his spirituality to others. Plus, there’s a mystery around him. It’s what good actors do. Something is held back, and you know it.
Goldfine: In Judaism the rabbi isn’t priestly, the rabbi is a teacher. A wise teacher who spends time pondering. If you talk to Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, he’ll say “Leonard Cohen? He’s my rabbi. He’s taught me so many things.”
Geller: Leonard’s songs question things, and that’s the core of the religion. It’s not preaching, it’s searching, plus there’s often a liturgical musicality in his songs.
Do you have a favorite line in “Hallelujah?”
Goldfine: It depends on the day, depends on my mood, what’s most nourishing. Maybe the line “I did my best, it wasn’t much/ I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” It says so much about being human, doing the best we can do. [N.B. — Cohen changed the line from “tried to touch” to “learned to touch” in the so-called “Secular Version.” Which is better? There is no answer.]
Geller: I am fascinated by the artistic process and the origin of creativity, so the notion of, “I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord,” that, to me, is fascinating. How do artists do what they do? It’s why I love the part in the movie where Rabbi Mordecai Finley talks about the Bat Kol, the female extension of God, the feminine force in the human mind for creativity. It’s a first line in a song so it feels tossed off, but it’s so… deep!
Those final tours really make a perfect final act for his life, yet it likely would not have happened if he didn’t get ripped off financially, no?
Geller: He told Robert Kory he wanted those tours to measure up to his own songs, in performance. They were long shows, a three-and-a-half hour night with breaks, but still —
Close to 80, getting down to his knees, he wasn’t dancing like Mick Jagger, but he had moves.
Losing all the money was a prompt, but he says it made him question if he achieved everything he could achieve as a performer
Geller: Those tours expanded his audience because you could feel that he was gifting something to the audience every night.
Goldfine: Losing all the money was a prompt, but he says it made him question if he achieved everything he could achieve as a performer. He says that even at [the Zen retreat] Mount Baldy, he would see his guitar and wonder if he’d get back on the stage. So it might be simplifying to say it was just because of the money.
There are a lot of great versions of this song in your movie: The original, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, which I never heard before, she was great —
Geller: And Eric Church.
Goldfine: And every “American Idol” contestant.
I’ve been involved in post-production before, things get repetitious, you hear a cue a thousand times, and when you are trying to get to sleep it echoes in your head and drives you crazy. Did you ever get sick to death of this fakakte song?
Goldfine: I swear I never did. Each interpretation is interesting.
Geller: I never did either, but I did end up, uncontrollably, creating ridiculous lyrics to the tune. Because it is a cantorial song, the rhythm makes it easy to put in evenly rhyming couplets — it just happens.
Yeah, yeah, you end up singing to the cat.
Geller: “You don’t really care for kibbles, do you?”