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Attempting to Capture the Life and Lyrics of That Wry Sage Leonard Cohen


The documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” illuminates the unpredictable paths taken by a singer-songwriter and his music. The administrators, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine (“Ballets Russes”), trace Cohen’s profession from his early days in Montreal to his Twenty first-century renaissance, exploring his creative process, his spiritual search and the way his perhaps best-known song, “Hallelujah,” took on a lifetime of its own.

Of the musician’s sagelike appeal, A.O. Scott wrote in a Critic’s Pick review, “His gift as a songwriter and performer was slightly to offer commentary and companionship amid the gloom, offering a wry, openhearted perspective on the puzzles of the human condition.”

I spoke with Geller and Goldfine about their insights into Cohen’s life and lyrical artistry, and his enduring mysteries.

What did you find out about Leonard Cohen that surprised you most?

DAN GELLER He was clearly struggling to seek out his sense of place in his life, his universe and his love life — and in his spiritual life. He was searching for so deeply over many years, and when that went away, as he said, “The search itself dissolved,” and a lightness entered his being. He couldn’t even explain why. And he didn’t wish to examine it an excessive amount of because he was afraid that by examining it, it would go away again.

DAYNA GOLDFINE I had thought that the one reason he had gone back out on the road in his mid-70s, after a 14-or-15-year hiatus, was because he had had all his money ripped off, and it was a financial compulsion. But just as essential was that Leonard felt as if he had never truly reached the identical level as a performer as he thought he may need reached as a singer-songwriter. You actually saw him then reaching this pinnacle that made a Leonard Cohen concert so deep and so spiritual.

He’s amazing in archival interviews because he essentially speaks in lyrics. What’s that wonderful phrase he casually drops, “the foothills of old age”?

GOLDFINE Yes! “70 is indisputably not youth. It’s not extreme old age, however it’s the foothills of old age.” Isn’t that gorgeous? I discovered Leonard’s wit each immensely gratifying and likewise surprising. Especially in the primary couple many years of his profession, he was painted as this monster of gloom. But if you happen to really hang with him and take heed to what he’s saying, he’s one among the funniest guys ever. It’s a really droll, dry wit.

At any time when possible, we tried to give you something fresh in order that even essentially the most devout Leonard Cohen head would find something recent in our film, or if we were going to make use of a bit of archival material that had been used previously, we’d attempt to reframe it. Rabbi [Mordecai] Finley, as an illustration, reframes a number of the material in a very interesting way that offers you a fresh perspective.

What were the largest revelations about “Hallelujah” and Cohen’s writing process?

GOLDFINE I hadn’t realized the sheer variety of verses that Leonard was writing and rewriting and erasing and reconfiguring throughout the five or so years that it took him to put in writing that song. After which the variety of times that he reconfigured the song in performing it. I really like within the film where he takes it from the King David Old Testament version of the song and moves it right into a secular realm.

GELLER There’s also the best way that other people have responded to the song — listening to John Cale or Brandi Carlile or Eric Church, to listen to why they resonated with the song. It’s given me a window into the souls of those other singer-songwriters.

His notebooks are fascinating because there are versions of lines which have different resonances but are also super powerful. “When David played, his fingers bled, he wept for each word he said” — that’s an incredible line there, too! He could have stopped anywhere along the best way and had possibly an equally powerful song.

GOLDFINE You furthermore mght see the very first incarnation of “Anthem,” one among his most famous songs, and the primary time he ever wrote that line: “There’s a crack in every part.” That nearly brought tears to my eyes after I saw it — the primary infant steps of “Anthem.” Also in those notebooks you see his datebook, and the primary time he met Dominique Issermann, the lady he considered the primary great love of his life.

Although you couldn’t interview Cohen, did you hear anything from him while making the film?

GELLER The Dominique [interview] was interesting because she was staying with Leonard on the time once we were going to film her. She said that he asked her, “Look, in the event that they start asking questions like, ‘Was it your kitchen chair that he was tied to when he wrote the song?’ don’t allow them to go down that path.” That is the one direct, or near direct, feedback we ever got from Leonard. In fact, we’d never ask that! But I assumed, That’s good, because what he was really saying is: Don’t concretize the song and its lyrics. Leave it open to interpretation, and a mystery. Don’t make it specific to Leonard himself.

What’s your favorite version of “Hallelujah”?

GOLDFINE Once I was embroiled in shaping the John Cale section, I just couldn’t get enough of the John Cale version. And Jeff Buckley was the primary “Hallelujah” that I ever heard, and it blew me away. But at the top of the day, it’s Leonard Cohen singing it in those last five years’ price of concert events and, night after night, getting down on his knees to start out that song.

GELLER Buckley’s haunting guitar arpeggios are so beautiful and exquisite. I really like those and his gorgeous voice. But Leonard performing it live — we saw him do it twice on the Paramount Theater in Oakland. Just watching someone truly stand in the middle of his song, a song that’s stuffed with the complications of craving, of brokenness, of hopefulness, of affection, of sex — all of it!

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