Can a single song light up the life of an artist? Two renowned American documentarians dare to challenge the figure of Canadian singer Leonard Cohen and “Hallelujah”, one of his best-known works.
“Hallelujah, the words of Leonard Cohen” was presented this weekend at the Deauville festival (northern 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 such as “Suzanne” or “So long, Marianne”, a 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.
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.
“For us it was important to have Leonard’s tacit blessing. Without that we would not have dared to make the film,” Daniel Geller told AFP.
The documentary is full of unpublished images, lent by the family of the author and composer. Among those treasures, a video that shows a young Leonard Cohen reading poetry, starring in his first interviews, or taking “selfies” with his Polaroid camera.
But above all the personal notebooks of the poet and novelist stand out.
“We had to wait years to consult them,” explains Dayna Geller. “They are proof of what Leonard always said: that it took him years to write that song, across five notebooks,” she explains.
Initially his 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 he had a moment of panic. Collins calmed him down and convinced him to finish singing it.
“He was quite an 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-ordinator.
From that long gestation of “Hallelujah”, the viewer also contemplates Cohen’s desire 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” he explains Goldfine.
“Hallelujah” is “a journey through life. That journey we all take,” completes Geller.