Leonard Cohen Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Leonard Cohen, singer and songwriter, at home in Los Angeles, Calif., September 2016.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller love Leonard Cohen — and they’re big fans of his iconic song “Hallelujah.” Their love of filmmaking and their love of Cohen’s music collided when they learned about the “incredible trajectory” behind the song’s surprisingly unlikely success.

The story goes that when former Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff first heard Cohen’s original 1984 version of “Hallelujah” produced by John Lissauer, he disliked it so much that he refused to put out the song and its corresponding album, Various Positions, in the U.S. Instead, Cohen had to settle for a small Canadian release and later ended up putting the album out on an even smaller New Jersey-based label, where it went largely unnoticed. It wasn’t until years later that fellow artists began to give the song a second life, including Bob Dylan, Eric Church, Jeff Buckley, and Rufus Wainwright, whose covers of “Hallelujah” caused it to rise to popularity and eventually become Cohen’s most universally beloved song.

The whole story is explained in-depth in Alan Light’s book The Holy Or The Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”, on which Goldfine and Geller based their film.

“I think having read that, we realized there was enough drama. I mean, A., there’s Leonard Cohen, who is this unbelievable human being who spent 82 years working as hard as he could on himself and his spiritual journey, but B., there’s this incredible trajectory of this creative entity, the song. We felt like, you know what? We think we can make this work. It’s not going to be easy, but we think we can make it work,” Goldfine told MovieMaker.

They also drew on Light’s relationship with Cohen to get the musician’s blessing to make the documentary before he died in 2016.

Also Read: Female Bodily Autonomy in Film, From Juno to Abortion Road Trips

“Alan kind of coached us in terms about how to best approach Leonard and his manager, and one of Alan’s pieces of advice, which he had used himself, was, ‘Approach them with what you want, but don’t ask for an interview, because Leonard is about to turn 80. He’s really working hard and just focused on his own work and getting as much done as he can. He’s not at a point in his life where he wants to have new people enter his life in that way,'” Goldfine said.

Instead, they approached with a simple request: “‘All we want is for Leonard to give us the same blessing to do this documentary that he gave to Alan Light to proceed with his book,'” she said, “So, unfortunately, we never actually did get to sit with Leonard, although I feel like we sat with him because we spent so much time thinking and talking to people who knew him, and then of course, in the editing room.”

Unfortunately, Yetnikoff also wasn’t up to being interviewed for Hallalejuah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song when Goldfine and Geller approached him to get his side of the story about why he rejected “Hallelujah” back in 1984. He passed away last year at the age of 88.

But even though Cohen went through the wringer to get what is arguably his greatest masterpiece out into the world, Geller and Goldfine’s documentary posits that perhaps its unlikely trajectory was all part of the song’s magic power.

“In those lyrics, and quite publicly in a lot of his life, [he] admits to the struggle,” Geller said. “The struggle of living a life, of the pain that’s involved, the aspiration toward beauty and meaning.”

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 1. 

Main Image: Leonard Cohen, singer and songwriter, at home in Los Angeles, Calif., September 2016, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics