Hallelujah: A Film About Leonard Cohen
Interview by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(July 14, 2022 – Toronto, ON) There are no bad films about Leonard Cohen. Profiles, tributes, and concert films alike celebrate the Canadian icon with equal measures of adulation along with evidence to substantiate the claim. It might seem like we don’t really need another Cohen film, but directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller, upon seeing Cohen perform live on the advice of a friend, couldn’t contain the passion they felt hearing Cohen’s music. So, when a dinner guest (famed film writer, David Thompson) challenges them to make a film about a song, Dayna and Dan both knew what that film would be. And so, they step into the ring with their Cohen film, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song. The song, as the title of Geller’s and Daniel’s film suggests, is Hallelujah, one of those brilliant, otherworldly achievements that seem to come by the power of grace rather than hard work and talent.
The filmmakers get Cohen’s blessing to do the film, but unfortunately he dies before taking part in the film himself, although the deal was that the movie be made without Cohen’s direct involvement. But interviews from Cohen friends, collaborators, and journalists; Adrienne Clarkson, John Lissauer, Larry ‘Ratso’ Sloman, and footage from the likes of Bob Dylan, Rufus Wainwright, and others make up for whatever perceived absence is felt from not having Cohen present.
Northernstars™ got to sit down with both Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller to chat about one of Canada’s greatest troubadours.
Thom: Right out of the gate, a question that doesn’t need to be asked: What about Leonard Cohen appealed to you enough to want to make a film?
Daniel: Seeing him perform those last year’s concerts. When twice he came through the San Francisco Bay area, we saw him at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland—not having been exposed to Leonard before–much of anything but to see him in those performances. There were no confetti canyons, no video screens, and, you know, none of that light up wristbands. It was just this quiet, beautiful incredible church-like, as some people say in the film, church-like experience of a man full of grace and wisdom in conflict and musicality. So, that’s the background against which this funny thing happened at a dinner party.
Dayna: Right, I mean I have to say the first concert that we went to–the first was in like I think 2009 when he first came through the Bay Area–and friends took us we would not even gone to that concert. Because they bought us a pair of tickets. They say, “You have to go” and within two songs I was total Cohen-head. I wanted to just follow him for the rest of his, that particular leg of the tour which is only three shows. And when we came back, we were quick to buy tickets and got as good a seat as we could in the house because we knew that we were in for, as Dan said, is almost religious experience so that maybe Leonard indelible. And that image of Leonard getting on his knees to start singing Hallelujah was something, you know, I’ll never forget. So yeah, we were sitting at this dinner party in a friend of ours, David Thompson, who’s a really great film writer, posed this kind of questions-slash-dare to us which was, “Have you ever considered making a film about a song?” And within a few minutes that indelible image washed over me, and I turned to Dan, and I said, I know the only song and the only songwriter that I would even think could keep us motivated and make for a great film and that’s Leonard Cohen and his song Hallelujah.Daniel: We hadn’t read Alan Light’s book or Sylvia Simmons’ excellent biography (*Note: likely referencing Light’s, The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah and Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen) at that point. So, what Dayna and I found Sympatico about this idea we had no idea about any of the story of the song itself: how long it took Leonard to write it, the banging his head on the floor of the Royalton, the rejection of the album, the way this song came to prominence. Not a clue. So, that we were grabbed by the feeling of the song and the possibility of a movie before knowing how just like a gift from heaven of how the plot would unfold so that it would be really a fun movie. That suggests that when the other pieces came into play that we would have a hell of an experience, a hell of a ride just making the movie and diving into Leonard’s journal, and diving into his interviews, and meeting people like Adrienne (Clarkson) who’s so fascinating so interesting to talk with.
Thom: Had Leonard passed when you started working on the film?
Dayna: No, he was about to turn 80 when we finished reading Alan Light’s book and approached Leonard and his manager with a very short note: Hi Mr. Cohen, we understand you’re about to turn 80, and we know you’re really busy. Would you consider letting us turn Alan Light’s book—which we know you liked–into a feature length documentary. So, he was alive and well and very quickly responded positively which shocked us.
Daniel: Well, because it’s also (that) Alan had coached us and said that Leonard was not interested in giving any interviews to anybody at that point. And that if we were to go to Leonard and Robert with that upfront saying, “We will not ask for an interview. We just want your tacit blessing so we can get the rights to the song”. We had to negotiate that (rights to the song) separately with Sony which we did for two years. If we had his tacit blessing, we could move ahead and otherwise just not involve him or take us time in anyway. So, he said yes very quickly. He was intrigued by our past work evidently–Robert told us. And then when we began to film it in August 2016, he was still alive at that point but that was only a few months before ultimately passed unfortunately.
Thom: But fortunately, you got to meet him.
Dayna: No. We didn’t meet him. So, our entire two paragraph proposal that was sent out in August of 2014 was predicated on us not requesting to meet him and only requesting his blessing. We don’t think he would have given his blessing had we asked to take up any of his time. I mean, clearly in the back of our minds, you know you’re not going to go down this path without secretly hoping that you might get to meet the man at some point. But then of course he passed away just a couple years later when we were first getting into production. So, that never happened. But we kind of feel like we know him. We spent eight years in his world and then especially all the time we spent with him in the editing room, looking for his journals, and talking to his really close friends and confidants. Obviously, we don’t know the man firsthand, but we feel like we have a sense of who he was.
Thom: Watching your film I felt I was meeting a very generous, approachable man whose reputation as a lady’s man, an intellect, and who—at least from my perspective—seemed unapproachable, did him a disservice.
Daniel: I think, just as the lyrics of his songs, particularly Hallelujah, shows so many facets that he probably was that way too. He could be incredibly generous. He could be removed. There’s that withholding that I often see in really good actors, that there’s something held back. The thoughts are on. You see the thoughts going but he’s not saying anything and that could be intimidating. And he also was famously conflict adverse. There’s an interview bit, and it’s not under the movie, but where he talked to one interviewer and said that when things would get hot. And he would run. He would get on a train or plane or boat and run away from something where he felt confined, or emotions were heating up into conflict. And I think that’s partly as you see it with John Lissauer that he just disappeared. I don’t know why he disappeared. I don’t think it had to do with John or that album. But he would run.
Dayna: But I have a different take on it. I think that he was an incredibly generous human being. I think that what he gave the world was his work. And his performances. There’s this moment when at the beginning of the final montage where you see Leonard singing Hallelujah all around the world, that incredible concert tour that went on for five years, and he says in voiceover, you need to stand at the centre of your song. And you need to give your audience basically everything you’ve got. And I think he did that from the very beginning. I don’t feel like a singer-songwriter, or any famous person, owes us anything more than that. Then, giving us everything they’ve got in their artform.
Thom: One thing that struck me to watching the film is, you know I wondered if Leonard Cohen ever said anything that wasn’t absolutely essential.
Daniel: I’m going through all those interviews over all those years occasionally you would see a story, or an idea repeated. But not often. Clearly, he thought a lot about the things that he then would be asked about. But he spoke in these incredibly well thought through, well-formed paragraphs about his life, about his career, about other people. And that was so interesting to me because you don’t normally see—I mean usually you get canned answers after a while you would start to see it–but I just don’t see in all those interviews over all those years. There are rarely, if ever, was a glib or canned answer.
Dayna: We talked to a music writer last week who had been lucky enough to interview Leonard a couple times. He said immediately upon starting an interview with Leonard Cohen you needed to realize that you were never going to be the smartest person in the room. And just give in to that because what Leonard had to give you was worth it. So, I love that. I love that analogy like, Yeah, you’re not going to be the smartest person in the room but look what I get to learn from this guy.
Thom: You didn’t get to meet (Leonard) in person but were you able to glean some of that infamous charisma he was said to have?
Dayna: I felt it on the tapes. I did the first pass; the first cut, and every single day sitting with that material, whether it was an interview from the 60s or an interview in 2008 or nine, I fell in love with that man every single day because he was just so palpably charismatic and wise and generous.
Daniel: But I also like watching the evolution from a very early interview that he had with the one we talked about changing his name he’s toying with her. He’s young and he’s playing a game. You see the later Leonard he’s not playing games with people anymore. I mean, he’s matured into something else. And I feel that that’s part of the journey to watch him grow and of course of what we are so privileged to have to string together. To watch him grow and then begin to, I would argue, began to respect himself and respect other people more and the way that most people do with your grow from a callow youth into a wise old man.
Thom: The way he described rebranding himself as September Cohen made sense to me.
Daniel: Yes. Yes.
Dayna: It did make sense?
Thom: It did. To me.
Daniel: It does.
Dayna: It did or didn’t?
Daniel: It did.
Dayna: Yes. It does make sense. I didn’t feel like he was being callow there. I thought he was being generous.
Daniel: Nah, he was toying with her. It’s a huge close-up from the CBC. You know he’s toying with in such a Leonard way. He’s also then moving it to this other level not just toy with her but to say, “There’s something serious going on here.”
Dayna: You know, it’s interesting because we had seen that interview footage early because we were collecting archival material. But it wasn’t until we sat down with Rabbi Findley to talk. Unsolicited, Rabbi Findley said, “By the way, did you ever see that Canadian footage from the 60s where Leonard’s asked about changing his name?” And he completely unpacked that moment for us. And it was such an exciting interview moment where we’re like, “Oh my God, can’t wait to go back and look at that footage. It’s gotta go in the film now.” Because what Leonard was doing– I don’t think it was (toying), maybe it was toying–but I thought what he was doing was so brilliant and so multilayered.
Daniel: But that’s just it. It’s always both with him. You don’t get just this level of Leonard. In anything that he’s saying or doing, there is six layers deep—over 1000 kisses deep. That made it so fascinating to work with the material over those eight years that you’re not getting bored with Leonard Cohen material.
Thom: I remember the album Death of a Ladies’ Man for its cover art, not so much the music. Your film holds that Death of a Ladies’ Man was not particularly successful for Leonard. That it was an album unsuited to Leonard’s style.
Daniel: That was an unfortunate pairing that Marty Machat put together because there was a huge advance sitting there that had to be consumed.
Dayna: Leonard’s manager.
Daniel: Leonard’s manager, who managed Phil Spector. I also liked what Leonard said to Adrienne Clarkson in that interview from a little bit later. Where he said the album was a disaster, but the songs were good, and Tina Turner should’ve sung it. He’s right. The songs are good. They’re just not Leonard Cohen vocal material or arrangements.
Thom: God, wouldn’t that have been fun if Tina Turner did that album?
Dayna: Or anyone of her genre. Maybe someone will see the film and decide they need to try to think they should. I think they should
Thom: Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah is the first version I heard. Any idea how Cohen felt about the song taking on a life of its own?
Daniel: Just talking with Robert Corey, who did know Leonard so well over those years and now manages the estate. And Robert was on tour with us, going around the world with the film. Robert said that Leonard knew that this was something very special that had happened. And that this song did go beyond Leonard Cohen, the songwriter, Leonard Cohen, the performer. He was happy about that. As John Lissauer puts it nicely in the film, you don’t get to be involved in something like this very often in your life. It transcends. You lose ownership of it in a way. It belongs to the world at that point. Robert was saying that Leonard did find some deep satisfaction in the song became what it has.
Dayna: And there are a handful of mostly radio interviews I came across throughout the years later in his life where Leonard talked about how blessed he felt when people covered this song. His songs in general, not just Hallelujah. He was very humble about it. I think that Leonard maintained this humbleness about his work and did continue to feel gratified every time he heard a cover of it.
Thom: Did Leonard have a happy life?
Daniel: There’s a moment in the film where he says that the search itself had dissolved. That the depression that plagued him vanished. He didn’t want to examine it too much to fear it somehow dispelling the lightness. So, I didn’t know how to answer definitively, but it sure looked like in that interview and the way he was singing in those incredible tours and that he could make music right up to the very end that seemed pretty good to me.
Dayna: Well, no one can be with any individual right when they’re facing the very very end. There’s that Tennessee Williams quote you know that life is a fairly good play until you get to the third act. But then (Leonard) even says that for me, the beginning of the third act, at least, has gone well. I think that acknowledgment of how he was blessed towards the latter part of his life says a lot.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.