Tracing a Legacy: ‘Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song’: Q&A with Directors Dayna Goldfine & Daniel Geller

Rock Cellar Magazine

Co-directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller have produced something singular in cinema and music history, a documentary that zooms in on one song — and, in doing so, also unfolds the life story of its songwriter. The 1 hour, 55-minute HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song tells the tale of the Montreal-born musician and explores his mystical musical paean that has been covered by numerous artists in various mediums and impacted audiences around the world.

It took the Canadian poet/author/lyricist/composer/singer — who attained global fame and wealth, yet turned his back on everyday existence to spend six years atop California’s Mt. Baldy at a spartan Zen monastery — up to eight years to write “Hallelujah.” However, when Cohen finally composed his masterpiece, it was at first inexplicably rejected by a tone-deaf music executive. But over time, acclaim for the song, which fuses a pop sensibility with spirituality, became a beloved international hymn and anthem of rapturous transcendentalist bliss.

San Franciscans Goldfine and Geller (who has won an Emmy Award), have co-produced and co-directed an eclectic body of work that includes documentaries about the groundbreaking modern dancer Isadora Duncan, the Sundance Institute for independent filmmakers and Russian ballerinas. The executive producers of HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song include documentarian Morgan Neville, who won the Oscar for 2013’s nonfiction ode to backup singers, Twenty Feet from Stardom. Rock Cellar caught up with Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller via phone at pop music’s pantheon of the stars, where Leonard Cohen was inducted by Lou Reed in 2008.  

Rock Cellar: Where are you now?

Dayna Goldfine: Right now, we are in Cleveland, Ohio, standing in the special secret vault of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We’re being shown amazing costumes, guitars and other musical instruments. We’re here because tonight, HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is going to have its Ohio premiere.

Daniel Geller: A sneak preview before it opens. Cleveland audiences will get a chance to see the movie tonight, and then two weeks from now when it opens up in theaters in Cleveland as part of the rollout, hopefully they’ll be talking about it and bringing friends to the actual [movie] theater. Then Dayna and I and Robert Kory, who was Leonard’s manager in the later days of Leonard’s life and now is the trustee of the Leonard Cohen Family Trust, will be doing a question and answer session after the screening tonight.

Dayna Goldfine: Which is actually going to go up on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website.

Rock Cellar: You two have worked together as a team on many productions. Can you please clarify for our readers what your relationship is?

Dayna Goldfine: Married, no children, two parrots and a cat.

Rock Cellar: Discuss your creative process in terms of a partnership?

Daniel Geller: We’re co-directors, co-producers, with everything that goes along with that. Because we have to navigate and negotiate our ideas with each other. There’s no outside arbitrator to do that. We’ve had a really good marriage and family counselors work with us over the years who now understand what it’s like to make a movie …

Dayna Goldfine: During production when we’re filming and getting things setup for the interviews or whatever, we tend to be pretty equal. Dan does the camera work, I do the sound work. That would be the most distinguished our roles are. Everyone in the office gets pulled into the act of archival research. Then in post-production, at this point around Dan really encouraged me to see the original editor and to take on the first pop of this film.

Daniel Geller: We brought in Bill Weber, who is a wonderful editor, who actually edited The Galapagos Affair movie we made, but still came in, and I came in, after Dayna had done this beautiful first pass. We began to trade scenes off Dayna and evaluate what we were building as we began to refine, refine and refine — which is very much a Leonard Cohen way of doing things.

Rock Cellar: You mentioned The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden. What kind of projects are you drawn to make?

Dayna Goldfine: Each one’s different, we try not to repeat ourselves. The rule of thumb is that if you’re going to be involved in a multiple-year project, you want to be able to enter a brand new world each time. So, The Galapagos Affair [featuring the voices of Cate Blanchett and Diane Kruger] is a murder mystery set in the Galapagos Islands. An unsolved murder mystery, happened in the early ’30s. And we go all the way up into the future or the current, and it’s man’s search, human’s search, or woman’s search for paradise.  

Rock Cellar: There have been many nonfiction biopics about musicians such as Brian Wilson, the Beatles, etc. But HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song seems unique because it focuses mainly on one single song from an artist’s oeuvre. Through the prism of that piece your documentary unfolds much of the story of Leonard’s life. Can you think of any other biopic about musicians that similarly concentrates on only one song and also tells that artist’s life story?

Daniel Geller: No. I don’t think we were trying to do something suis generis, but it just happened that way. I can’t think of another, where at the same time you’ve a song that had such a strange trajectory into the world. With rejection and some sort of massive redemption as a song, and with a songwriter whose work is as profound as Leonard Cohen’s. So, even if there is another film out there that tries to examine a life through the prism of a song and I don’t know of it, it would be hard to find something as wild, and at the same time, evocative and deep as what we were really fortunate to have been able to do with this movie.

Dayna Goldfine: And also to give a nod to ​Alan Light, who is the author of the book [The Holy or the Broken: Leonard CohenJeff Buckley & the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah] which inspired us to consider. I mean, we’d gotten this idea, could we do a documentary about Leonard and “Hallelujah” and the song and the inspiration being Leonard’s performance — which we were fortunate to see twice at the Paramount in Oakland, when he was on that last five-year victory tour. But really, it was reading Alan Light’s book and [where we got] the sense that this particular song had an incredibly dramatic, like cinematic, route through the world and life, and it was so wedded to Leonard himself as an artist and spiritual seeker.

Rock Cellar: Did you get an opportunity to interview Leonard Cohen himself for your film?  

Daniel Geller: One of the things Alan Light had advised us about getting tacit permission from Leonard, which was critical for us to then be able to approach Sony [Music] Publishing for negotiating the publishing rights for the movie, was that we not ask Leonard for an interview. At that point of his life, he really did not want to be interviewed anymore, he wanted to focus whatever energy he had solely on writing and creating and recording new work. We knew from the beginning that was not going to be part of the project.

But we also knew that Leonard’s life and his work had been extensively documented easily since the 1960s, when he was an up and coming and actually pretty famous poet and writer in Canada, right through the end. And that he had been interviewed extensively throughout the years. We knew we’d have plenty of material from Leonard to articulate his perspective, and also to do so over the course of his life, rather than in a retrospective way. 

Leonard Cohen (Photo: Sony Classics)

Leonard Cohen (Photo: Sony Classics)

Leonard Cohen (Photo: Sony Classics)

Leonard Cohen (Photo: Sony Classics)

Dayna Goldfine: But also, what we didn’t know when we first started was that we were going to get access to the incredible Leonard Cohen Family Trust archives. And that took us several years and several proofs of concept on our part. Like we finished the first draft of the first act and showed it to Robert Kory, and once he saw what we were doing, and appreciated the love and care we were putting into it, he started making those archives slowly available to us.

Also, when we first started, we had no idea that “Ratso” [Larry] Sloman, the journalist [author of On the Road with Bob Dylan], had on cassette tapes every single time he’d spoken to Leonard, from the very first phone call he’d made as a cub reporter at Rolling Stone in 1974 all the way through the early 2000s.   

Rock Cellar: What do you think of Leonard as an individual?  

Daniel Geller: Oh, deeply complex. A man full of contradictions. Seeking all the way through some reconciliation between profane and holy aspects of life, and of his own behavior. Of brokenness and holiness, embracing the totality of the human condition. None of us are without those complications, but what Leonard was able to do was to plumb those contradictions, accept them in his own life, then write about them in ways that other people could relate to.

Dayna Goldfine: It’s easy to put someone like Leonard Cohen up on a pedestal because he was such a great artist and an incredible thinker. The gift to me from this project is realizing, no, no, no, he was not a god, he was a human being, he was a man who just simply worked really hard on himself till his dying day. He was flawed, like all of us, but that sense of really examining your inner core and what’s going on in the world and working on your own spiritual journey is inspirational.   

Rock Cellar: Judy Collins is seen throughout parts of HALLELUJAH in an original interview for your film. What was her pivotal role in Leonard’s evolving from a poet and author into a musician and a songwriter who wrote music and lyrics and performed live at concerts and in recording studios?

Dayna Goldfine: Initially, Judy’s great role was in verifying for Leonard these things he was writing as a poet actually were songs. He initially came to her and played “Suzanne” after being told by someone up in Montreal that it was just like every other song. Judy listened to it and had the wisdom and talent and to appreciate it for what it was and said: “That is a song, Leonard, and I’m recording it.” She really put him on the map as a songwriter and in choosing to cover his songs very early on in the late ’60s, she gave him her imprimatur. It was a symbiotic relationship.    

Daniel Geller: Leonard as a kid had a band called the Buckskin Boys. But as a performer he did not think himself capable of becoming a recording artist or an adult concert artist at age 30 or 32. And Judy pushed him to do that, as well. Judy was the one who said, “You need to get onstage and sing your own songs.” So, she was deeply influential — that’s a one-two punch. “You’re a writer of songs and you’re a performer of your own songs, keep recording.”

Dayna Goldfine: And the cool thing about that particular interview we did is the place where Judy pushed him out onstage for the first time and he ran off the stage, mortified, and then she pushed him right back on and went with him is the Towne Hall in New York City. We happened to be lucky enough to interview Judy on the stage of the Towne Hall almost exactly 50 years to the day of the moment she pushed Leonard out there.       

Rock Cellar: I can see an affinity between Leonard and Judy. But Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector seem like quite an unlikely pair. Tell us about their collaboration and what did it produce?

Daniel Geller: The supposition is that Marty Machat, who [was] representing both Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen, had a contract with a huge advance that needed to be met by somehow putting another record out with Phil. So, he put him with Leonard at that point and it was an ill-fated collaboration in some ways because the record that resulted, Death of a Ladies Man, was so far afield from what Leonard could truly perform as a man who, as he says later in the film, “stands in the center of a song emotionally.” It has some nice songs on it, but as Leonard said to Anne Carson in an interview, years later on, “Oh, that album was a disaster. The songs are good but Tina Turner should have been singing them.”

Dayna Goldfine: Basically, the combination of Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” was not a great one, in our humble opinion.

Rock Cellar: John Lissauer also worked with Leonard. Who was he and what did he do with Cohen?

Dayna Goldfine: So, John Lissauer was a very young musician, really — I don’t know that he’d ever produced an album. Leonard met him in a small concert up in Montreal in 1973 and started talking to him and was very impressed with him and his musical ability and he kind of off the cuff said, “Hey, would you like to produce an album with me?” And John did. It was very unusual –John was an untried, young producer. Marty Machat, the guy who ultimately put Leonard with Phil Spector, was not appreciative of this young, longhaired guy producing an album for Leonard. But they had an enduring relationship. It was interrupted at times, but it was enduring.

Rock Cellar: What was Clive Davis’ role in Leonard’s career?

Daniel Geller: John Hammond, the amazing talent scout, A&R guy and producer for Columbia Records, was the one who had been alerted to Leonard Cohen. Then John brought Leonard Cohen to Clive Davis to see if Clive also felt as strongly about Leonard as John Hammond did, and the answer was, yes, absolutely. So, really, at that time, Clive was president of Columbia Records and ultimately had the say, yea or nay, about whether they would sign Leonard to a contract and get him recording. So, Clive really made a big difference in saying yes to an oddball Canadian singer/songwriter who was a good 10 years older than most who would be signed for a first recording contract and understood that Leonard would be the kind of artist that would find his own way and that no one could quite imitate either. And he was right about that. 

Dayna Goldfine: And unfortunately for Leonard, Clive was eventually pushed out of Columbia Records and went off to form Arista. The person who took over for Clive, Walter Yetnikoff, was not a big fan of Leonard’s; Leonard was not one of his artists. Michael Jackson was; Madonna was; Bruce Springsteen was. And he did not take kindly to Leonard. And that is what started the very odd trajectory of the album Various Positions, and “Hallelujah,” which was on that album.      

Rock Cellar: Tell us about that music executive who, in his infinite wisdom, initially rejected “Hallelujah” and why? 

Daniel Geller: At the time Walter Yetnikoff was heading Columbia Records there was Madonna, there was Bruce Springsteen, there was Michael Jackson. There was a bigger sense of epic production and epic performance that was not Leonard Cohen. So, in Yetnikoff’s estimation, as far as where the record company would put its dollars and efforts, and where Yetnikoff thought the American audience was going at the moment, Leonard didn’t fit the bill. Exactly what happened beyond that, why they didn’t put it out at all in the U.S. — they could’ve put it out on the Columbia Records music label and not particularly support it, but not put it out in the U.S. at all is still a mystifying decision.

Dayna Goldfine: Walter Yetnikoff’s autobiography is called Howling at the Moon, and if you read that, you’ll get a sense of the coke-infused, coke-fueled hubris that was motivating and propelling Walter Yetnikoff around the time that Leonard Cohen was bringing him the songs on Various Positions.

Rock Cellar: Nevertheless, “Hallelujah” went on to become Leonard’s biggest hit. What do you think is that song’s appeal?

Dayna Goldfine: Oh gosh, so many things. First of all, the simple chorus, which is just “Hallelujah” — it feels so great to just sing that word. It brings out such an array of emotions as that word is coming off of your tongue. Then of course, the verses. Each verse, each line, is a story unto itself. And they range from every possible human emotion, from the carnal to the most devoutly spiritual.

Daniel Geller: And musically, you think about … melodically, that song, each verse begins quietly, it builds up to a sense of yearning that almost comes to a culmination. It doesn’t quite get there, and then you drop down and you’re back in that chorus of “Hallelujah.” It’s a very approachable, singable song. It’s a beautiful melody but it’s very singable. It’s not “The Star Spangled Banner”, where I challenge anybody who’s not a three-octave opera singer to be able to encompass that. So, anybody can sing “Hallelujah” to themselves, and there’s something very beautiful about a song that is so deep in its lyrical construction, so beautiful in its melodic construction, and it’s also so singable, even to an amateur.

Dayna Goldfine: Eric Church says in our film, there’s something about that song, when you hear it, you don’t just walk on. You stop whatever you’re doing, wherever you are and pay attention. There’s just something almost intangible about that song. I can’t even articulate it, but it’s there.        

Rock Cellar: How has the song “Hallelujah”, including the lyrics, evolved and changed over the years?

Daniel Geller: Cohen himself, beyond taking the many years to write that song and all the variations of the verses he was refining, also began to change the song for himself. After it was recorded for Various Positions as original four verses, which he called “the King David version of the song,” he began to feel he couldn’t sing them the same way. He was choking on the words; he just couldn’t find his way through those verses. Also, he wanted to drive the “Hallelujah” itself into a more secular realm, and not quite such a religious realm. And he wrote four new verses, or at least culled from his journal four new verses, that appended to the original verse number one.

And that’s what he started singing when he was out on tour, this secular version, in the late ’80s.

And that got mixed and matched by John Cale in his honoring of the song on [the 1991 tribute album] “I’m Your Fan.” When we saw Leonard in 2009 thereabouts and again when he came through the Bay Area a few years later on those great world tours, he was mixing and matching the lyrics, performance to performance, depending on what his mood was, I suppose.     

Rock Cellar: Many artists went on to cover “Hallelujah.” It is even in Shrek. Who are some of the musicians who appear in your documentary performing their versions of the song?

Dayna Goldfine: Well, we kind of do the trajectory of how the song did go out in the world, despite Walter Yetnikoff’s very dismal verdict. So, Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright. That’s the obvious four-person arc. Then, there’s Brandi Carlile, who has an amazing version and story why she covers it. Eric Church, of course, k.d. lang.

Daniel Geller: It’s funny, because we could have put in more versions, because they’re all so interesting. If you’re talking about performances in the movie, Leonard covering his own song. The original version, a secular version and the various kinds of ways he was performing it much later in life. So, to watch Leonard cover his own song in some ways is as interesting as seeing Eric Church do a beautiful version of the song.

Dayna Goldfine: And then of course there is Alexandra Burke and the whole [The X Factor UK] part of the song … Her rendition of it is so gospel. 

Rock Cellar: I’m going to put you both on the spot. Who performs your personal favorite renditions of “Hallelujah”?

Daniel Geller: Number one has to be seeing Leonard perform it live late in life. That was astounding. At the time, here you have this man in his mid to late seventies, with all of the accumulated wisdom and accumulated showmanship and grace in his life at that point, performing something that seemed to reach deep, deep, deep down inside his entire life story and way up to the heavens, in some sort of way. To me, that’s my favorite. 

Even though I loved k.d. lang, and I loved Rufus and I loved Jeff Buckley. Leonard doing his own song at that moment of his life is something I’ll never forget.

Dayna Goldfine: I hate to be a wimp and say I agree, but that’s kind of mine, too. The first version that I fell in love with and listened to was of course Jeff Buckley’s. Initially, it was Jeff’s version, but then after seeing Leonard in concert and getting down on his knees, and singing that song, it’s that version.

Rock Cellar: What’s next for you?

Daniel Geller: We have a couple of ideas, one is music-based, one is not. We’re taking a breather now just to be able to tour with the movie, catch our breath, and enjoy the rollout of this documentary.   

HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song theatrically opens July 1 in New York at Film Forum and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal.

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