‘Hallelujah’ Directors Explain How They Turned Leonard Cohen’s Song Into a Whole Movie

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A version of this story about “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” first appeared in the Guilds & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The title of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” makes a few things clear about the music documentary. For one thing, its focus is on the song “Hallelujah,” one of the most influential, moving and often-covered songs by Cohen; and on the other hand, the film will move well eyond that song, using it as a jumping-off point to explore the life and artistry of the revered French-Canadian poet who became an unlikely pop star.

Why make a movie based around a single song?
DAYNA GOLDFINE We were at a dinner party with David Thompson, the film writer, who sort of posed the question. He said, “Have you ever considered doing a documentary on a song?”

And he didn’t have a specific song in mind?
DAN GELLER No. None whatsoever. He thought seriously about doing it as a book without a song in mind, just as an interesting writing project for himself. But he couldn’t crack the code of doing it, and then he thought maybe it would be more possible as a movie.

GOLDFINE I’ve said this to David subsequently: I was pretending to be excited by the idea. As a filmmaker, when someone like David who really knows his stuff says, “I have an idea for your next film,” you lean forward. But then he said it was a documentary about a song, and I leaned back instantly. I was like, “How am I gonna pretend to like this idea?” But then I had the image of Leonard singing “Hallelujah” in a show we had seen came up, and it was like, “Oh, my God, I actually know what song we would use if we did this.” And the next morning I Googled “Leonard Cohen” and Alan Light’s book (The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”) came up. We read the book and thought, there’s even more of a story here than we thought. So we reached out to Alan, and he said “You’re not the first filmmakers to approach me, but it’s never come to fruition.”

He said the number one turnoff after the initial enthusiasm on the part of the other filmmakers was that Leonard wouldn’t be interviewed. And I thought that’s not a deal-breaker. That’s just a challenge to be creative and figure out other ways to do it. Number two, other filmmakers decided that they couldn’t make it interesting to do a documentary where you heard one song multiple times. OK, another gauntlet thrown down. And the third was that other filmmakers didn’t think it would be possible to get Sony Publishing to provide the rights at a reasonable cost. And we were like, “OK, that would be a deal-breaker. Let’s see if we can make that happen.” And it took us 18 months.

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Did you go to Sony Publishing saying, “We want the rights to this song” or “we want the rights to a lot of Leonard’s songs”?
GELLER We went in thinking that we just wanted that song. That was such a huge hurdle and we hadn’t even given much mind to what else we might need because we couldn’t even get going without the rights to the song. So that’s what we asked for, and it took us 18 months to know that we could afford the rights. Then really, it was only over time as we understood that the songs that led up to “Hallelujah” and the songs that succeeded “Hallelujah” were important in understanding the mind of Leonard Cohen and the quest that he put himself on. So we began adding more songs and conveniently not paying attention to how much that might cost.

GOLDFINE When it got into Telluride, we knew that we needed to get serious about clearing all the rights (Cohen’s manager) Robert Kory called us and he said, “You probably should call Esther at Sony Publishing. If you want, I’ll put in a call warning her. You need, what, another dozen songs?” And we were like, “It’s 22.” (Laughs)

What was the impetus behind pushing the movie to tell a story that was much bigger than that single song?
GOLDFINE I think one of the big questions that we were posing for ourselves, and it’s not overt in the film, is what is it about Leonard Cohen that made him the only person in the entire universe that could have come up with a song like “Hallelujah”? If that’s one of your theses, then you need to let an audience know a little bit about his creative preoccupations, his spiritual preoccupations, his human foibles and preoccupations.

GELLER You could make it very much an expository kind of movie, but it’s a different story to flip it and thread those elements in. You wind up understanding aspects of his life and having an emotional stake in his success when he says, “I want to be a songwriter, but I don’t know if I’m any good.” And then you can bring in all these other elements—looking at his Jewish roots, his feeling like there’s an empty, resonating presence in his heart that leads him to Buddhism. That gives you an emotional journey, which is the kind of movie I love to watch.

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Leonard famously filled notebooks with alternate verses to “Hallelujah,” with estimates ranging into the hundreds of verses. You’ve seen the notebooks—how many verses are there?
GOLDFINE It’s a misleading question. It’s totally worth asking, but there might be one section where Leonard’s working on “I know this room/I walked this floor,” and there are three or four different versions. Do you count those as verses?

GELLER I think some of the fun is in the exaggerating.

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue here.