‘Hallelujah’: the song that defines Leonard Cohen

Can a single song light up the life of an artist? Two renowned American documentary filmmakers dare to challenge the figure of the canadian singer Leonard Cohen and ‘Hallelujah’one of his best known works.

‘Hallelujah, the words of Leonard Cohen was presented at the Deauville festival (France), dedicated to American cinema. Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) became one of the most emblematic poets and singer-songwriters in the English language since the start of his career in the 1960s.

Author of classics like Suzanne or So long, Marianne, passionate lover of the poetry of the Spanish Federico García Lorca, Cohen was not as well known as stars like Bob Dylan, but his musical influence was considerable in the Anglo-Saxon world.

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The duo Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, winners of several Emmy awards, bet on studying their figure without falling into the usual biography, through a song whose lyrics are one of the most beautiful and enigmatic of Cohen’s long production.

The project required eight years, and had the approval of the singer. “It was important to us to have Leonard’s tacit blessing. Without that we wouldn’t have dared to make the film,” Geller explained.

The documentary is full of unpublished images, lent by the composer’s family. Among those treasures, a video showing a young Leonard Cohen reading poetry or taking selfies with his Polaroid camera.

Also noteworthy are the poet’s personal notebooks. “We had to wait years to consult them,” says Dayna Geller. “They are proof of what Leonard always said: that it took him years to write that song, across five notebooks,” she says.

Initially their record company, Columbia, rejected Hallelujah. It was Bob Dylan himself who helped popularize it, and then John Cale (1991) and Jeff Buckley (1994). The documentary also shows American singer Judy Collins helping Cohen overcome “stage fright” while performing. In 1967, Cohen was singing Suzanne when she had a moment of panic. Collins calmed him down and convinced him to finish singing it. “He was a rather atypical performer, with an atypical voice. He wasn’t a very rock’n’roll personality… And I think she helped him get over that,” explains the co-reeler.

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From that long gestation of Hallelujah, the viewer also contemplates Cohen’s longing for spirituality, his restlessness, the depression he suffered in silence for years.

“Before starting the project, I thought that Leonard Cohen was a god. But after having spent eight years scrutinizing his life, it is clear that he was a man (…). A man who really questioned himself. Every day,” explains Goldfine. Hallelujah is a journey through life. That trip that we all do”, completes Geller.

AFP/ Deauville (France)

‘Hallelujah’: the song that defines Leonard Cohen