A Review by Gaetano Kazuo Maida
July 1, 2022
They had me at “Leonard Cohen.”
Ever since Judy Collins introduced his song “Suzanne” on her great 1968 album, In My Life, his name on a project—book, album, song, film—had special meaning, somehow within and yet beyond pop culture. Here, it’s perhaps his best-known, and certainly most covered song, “Hallelujah” that takes the lead, and offers a lens through which to survey his life, the music business, and the cultural era he inhabited and inspired.
No one film could contain the full story of his life, and as it happens, there’ve already been three very different works focused on him (other than his performances): Ladies and Gentlemen… Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), Leonard Cohen—I’m Your Man (2005), and Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love (2019), and surely there will be others (if not a doc series… hello streamers?). By choosing to use this particular song as the armature of their story, though, filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller free themselves from having to dig too deeply into the details of a complicated life history, and can joyfully pursue his process, and his effects on others and the world around him.
And the others include a who’s who of the music world from several generations: Judy Collins of course, Hal Willner, Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, kd lang, John Hammond, Clive Davis, Sharon Robinson, Jennifer Warren, Bob Dylan, Brandie Carlile, plus “everyone and their sister” who covered the song on the many television talent shows. But perhaps the find of the film is the former Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman, who provides a long-term insider’s intimate commentary, as well as shares his audio tapes of frank conversations with Cohen over the years.
We learn from Sloman that as early as forty, Cohen said, “My goal is to become an elder,” and in a way he always was. Unlike most of his peers, he was usually dressed in a well-tailored suit and tie with elegant shoes and a classic hat, and having only started to write songs at thirty (after publishing poetry and novels), he was already perceived as an outsider—too old to break into the business, and perhaps too intellectual to reach a wide audience. He once presciently, if jokingly, said, “I feel I have a huge posthumous career ahead of me.”
Despite the attention (and a Columbia recording contract) that came to him after Collins recorded “Suzanne,” Various Positions, the 1984 album that contained his first recording of “Hallelujah” (as well as the incredible “If It Be Your Will” and “Dance Me to the End of Love”), was actually rejected by Columbia. Then-company president Walter Yetnikoff allegedly told him, “Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
The song as recorded on that album is like an Old Testament prayer, invoking David, the Lord of Song, taking the name in vain, and of course, the near-chanting of the prayerful word itself many times. That version, with Cohen’s newly acquired deep voice and slow delivery, sounds like a modern spiritual, a yearning and a pleading.
A lesser song may have never recovered from the cancellation of the album, but Cohen performed versions of it in concerts, and it was well received if not celebrated until singer John Cale (of the fabled band Velvet Underground) started performing it in his solo act. Sloman narrates the trajectory, in which he had a role. Aware from conversations with Cohen that there were perhaps more than 150 verses written, he told Cale, also a friend, that he should ask for the lyrics Cohen was singing that were different from the Various Positions recording. Cale recorded his version, “with all the cheeky bits” for a Cohen tribute album, and it’s that version—more the story of a struggle between carnal desire and spiritual aspiration—that was heard by Jeff Buckley, who performed and recorded it to great acclaim. Buckley’s recording on his 1994 studio album, Grace, was widely heard in the wake of his untimely death in 1997 at age 30, and that performance was released as a single in 2007, eventually reaching Gold and Platinum sales status. A trimmed down and cleaned up version of Cale’s performance was in the hugely successful 2001 film Shrek—yes, Shrek!—and a Rufus Wainwright rendition of that version was on the Shrek soundtrack album which sold over two million copies.
The fuller version exemplifies Cohen’s lifelong search for a satisfactory path through this world that is in harmony with a spiritual grounding and inclusive of the natural sensual impulses of being human. His Orthodox Judaism was a solid start (his grandfathers were rabbis; his full given name is Leonard Norman Eliezer Cohen), but he spent several years closely connected with a Japanese zen teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, even living at Sasaki’s California zen monastery for long periods (about zen he said, “it was closer to science than religion”—his dharma name was Jikan, meaning “the silence between two thoughts”), and he later traveled multiple times to India to study with a Vedic teacher, Ramesh Balsekar. His many relationships with women and long sojourns in Greece and France attest to his mature sensuality. It’s in this nexus that the song’s deep resonance with audiences and artists lies.
Of course, contemporary culture can never leave well enough alone, and the song has been covered by just about everyone, and used as shorthand for “deep feelings” in television shows and films including The West Wing, The O.C., Third Watch, Without A Trace, Cold Case, Scrubs, the 2010 Winter Olympics… the list is very long. At one point Cohen smilingly says, “I was happy the song was being used, but I think people ought to stop singing it for a little while.”
The film is a warm and comprehensive (if packed) look at the song, its impacts, its many admiring singers, and Cohen’s struggles and successes in writing it and trying to live with its revealing truths. Cohen says he wasn’t much taken with the Beat motto, “First thought, best thought,” because “There hardly is a first thought; it’s all sweat.” About the song he says, “I filled two notebooks [with lyrics] and I remember being in the Royalton Hotel, on the carpet in my underwear, banging my head on the floor and saying, ‘I can’t finish this song.’” The language and sensibilities of the Bible, Buddhist tradition, the Bhagvad Gita, the Kama Sutra, and real life, were all mined diligently and honestly to produce a classic that takes on new meaning with every rendition.
On stage during his great five-year world tour, his last, Cohen exhibited a maturity, a sincere gratitude, a sense of grace. Watching the 75-year old Cohen earnestly give a peace blessing in Hebrew to a huge outdoor audience in Tel Aviv takes your breath away. And near the end of the film, singer Regina Spektor tells us that Cohen performing was like “an instruction manual on how to be in this world.” That’s a good description of an awakened being—a tzadik or a bodhisattva—and all we can say is “hallelujah!”
Hallelujah—Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song premieres in New York and Los Angeles on July 1 and will open only in theaters around the country in July and August. Find a venue near you here.
The filmmakers will appear in person at the Laemlle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, July 1 and Saturday, July 2, the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco on Friday, July 8 and Sunday, July 10, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael on Saturday evening, July 9, the Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF Thursday July 7 and Sunday, and on Saturday afternoon at Berkeley’s Elmwood Cinema. Links will take you to showtimes and advance ticket purchase.
In English, 115 minutes, Rated PG-13
“There is a religious Hallelujah, but there are many other ones. When one looks at the world, there’s only one thing to say, and it’s Hallelujah. That’s the way it is.”
— Leonard Cohen
This project began as a very specific exploration of “Hallelujah” and its international impact — whether to entertain (like the audiences who flocked to Shrek), commemorate life’s important moments at weddings and funerals, or to serve as a communal healing, like the song’s use during the Covid-19 memorial service on the eve of the January 2021 Presidential inauguration.
When we took up our camera and microphone, it was originally to look at the song through the eyes of interviewees who had been involved with recording it (producer and arranger John Lissauer); singing it with Leonard Cohen himself (Sharon Robinson); or covering it on their own (Judy Collins, Brandi Carlile, Rufus Wainwright).
While those initial interviews proved we were on to an entertaining and captivating story, they also illuminated something deeper about the song itself and especially about the man who wrote it. We found ourselves needing to expand the film’s reach to include many of Leonard’s intimates — those who served as his emotional and spiritual counselors (Rabbi Mordecai Finley; Nancy Bacal, his childhood friend of nearly 80 years; his longtime girlfriend Dominique Issermann), as well as his intellectual sparring partners (Adrienne Clarkson; music writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman). These people, along with many others, speak in depth and with firsthand knowledge about Cohen’s lifelong focus on the purpose and sanctity of the human condition.
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song gives voice to the deepest questions about faith, belief, skepticism and the psychological and religious constructs that serve to both support and obstruct us throughout our lives — or as Leonard Cohen would call it, “the broken Hallelujah.”
—Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, August 2021
Nicolas Rapold interviews Goldfine and Geller for the New York Times.
Steve Saito interviews the filmmakers for The Moveable Fest.
Interview with Goldfine and Geller plus Robert Kory, Leonard Cohen’s manager. at the Munich Film Festival
For over 30 years, Emmy-award winning directors/producers Geller and Goldfine have jointly created critically acclaimed multicharacter documentary narratives that braid the personal stories of their protagonists to form a larger portrait of the human experience. Their most recent film, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013) had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and its European premiere in Berlin. It opened theatrically to strong critical reviews nationwide in April 2014, has played theaters and festivals internationally, and is now available worldwide on VOD as well as consumer and educational DVD.
Geller and Goldfine’s work also includes the award-winning Something Ventured (2011), which premiered at SXSW and went on to play festivals and screen internationally, followed by successful educational and home video release culminating with a national PBS showing in 2013; Ballets Russes (2005), which was recognized as one of the top five documentaries of 2005 by the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board of Review, appearing on a dozen critical top-ten lists, including Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood Reporter, the San Francisco Chronicle and Slate; Now and Then: From Frosh to Seniors, which premiered theatrically in October 1999 and aired on PBS in October 2000 as the lead program of the Independent Lens series; Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (1996), a feature-length documentary about the South Bronx-based art group, which aired on Cinemax in September 1998 and was the recipient of two national Emmy Awards; Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm (1994); and, the award-winning Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul (1988).
Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine were admitted to the Documentary Branch of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in June 2014.
Hallelujah—Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song features (in order of appearance)
Leonard Cohen Larry
Rabbi Mordecai Finley
Palmer Regina Spektor
Inspired by the book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah” by Alan Light
Cohen full seven-minute performance of “Hallelujah” in London
Watch many more performance plus interviews on our companion Gallery page.
Gaetano Kazuo Maida is a media professional and strategic planner. He has both owned and consulted for restaurants, and has been active in the tea arena here and in Asia. He was a founding director of the Buddhist quarterly Tricycle, and producer/director of several films including Peace Is Every Step, a film profile of Vietnamese Zen teacher/activist Thich Nhat Hanh, narrated by Ben Kingsley. He was featured in the film by Les Blank and Gina Liebrecht, All in This Tea. Maida is currently executive director of the nonprofit Tea Arts Institute, as well as Buddhist Film Foundation, which produces the International Buddhist Film Festivals around the world.
Maida has written for EatDrinkFilms about his search for the perfect Bialy, about Les Blank’s ALL IN THIS TEA, and reviewed THE VELVET QUEEN, CITY OF GOLD, THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM, IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE, Jewish food films, RAMEN SHOP, and THE AUTOMAT.