Leonard Cohen’s signature song, “Hallelujah,” was unreleased in America during its first issuance on the album Different Positions in 1984. Then-Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff baffled Cohen by saying: “We know you’re great but we don’t know if you’re any good.”
Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song describes the years of work Cohen put into this opus. Its lyrics diagram its own musical structure, while telling of the Bible’s David and Bathsheba, of the effort of constructing a song that beguiles the listener. At least 300 musicians have covered it. More than just the biography of a cherished song, it tells of Cohen himself: a God-ponderer and Zen devotee, well born but drawn to sorrow.
Like so many, Dayna Goldfine first heard the Jeff Buckley version—the one that turned up in Shrek (2001). “I was struck dumb in the middle of whatever conversation I was in,” she remembered. “Of course, I, like many of the people interviewed in Hallelujah, assumed that the song was a Jeff original…To this day, even after being fully engaged with the song on a daily basis for almost eight years, I still stop what I’m doing when I hear someone singing ‘Hallelujah.’”
Geller, Jewish like Cohen, understood the song’s “liturgical aspects.” However, she said, “I find myself spiritually engaged when the lyrics explore doubt, brokenness and holiness.”
The filmmakers never got to meet Cohen. Part of the permissions process was a request not to ask for interviews, as Cohen was then marshaling the last of his powers for what the singer/poet describes on camera as “a huge posthumous career.”
“So much material about and with Cohen exists that we didn’t need anything more from him in person,” Geller said. “I do wish he had lived long enough to have seen this movie, though.”