While documenting Bob Dylan’s 1975-1976 Rolling Thunder Revue for his book On the Road with Bob Dylan, New York journalist and author Larry “Ratso” Sloman found himself inside a phone booth, connecting Dylan to Leonard Cohen.
Dylan’s North America tour featured a collection of surprise guest musicians and collaborators, including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Ronee Blakely, among others. Sloman, who was already a friend and acquaintance of Cohen’s since first interviewing him the previous year, was pushed by Dylan to call Cohen after the two ran into one another in a hotel lobby in Montreal.
“I bumped into Bob and he was shopping in the lobby and said, ‘Hey, call Leonard. See if he’ll come and do a song,’” to a slightly reluctant Sloman. “No, no call him right now,” urged Dylan, according to the writer.
“I’m dialing his number and all the time Bob is literally tugging at my arm,” remembers Sloman, also known as “Ratso,” a nickname affectionately bestowed upon him by Baez during the aforementioned tour. “I say, ‘Leonard, it’s Larry. How you doing?’ and Leonard’s answer to that was, ‘Well, I can’t complain.’ That’s what he would always say. I’m trying to talk to him, and Bob is going, ‘Is he gonna come? Is he gonna come?’”
Eventually, Sloman handed the phone to Dylan so the two could speak without a mediary. “I hear Bob saying, ‘Leonard, how you doing?’ And of course, I hear Leonard go, ‘Well, I can’t complain.’”
Sloman’s account is one of a multitude in his Rolodex of memories, all stemming from his initial meeting with Cohen for a Rolling Stone assignment in 1974, one that would flourish into a friendship that continued for more than 30 years. Left with endless hours of unedited tape recordings of conversations with Cohen through 2005 that had never been heard before, Sloman shared them with Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller as they were assembling their 2021 documentaryHallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.
Given the blessing to make the film by Cohen himself before his 80th birthday, Geller and Goldfine took their cue from Alan Light, who wrote the 2012 book The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,”a book that Cohen praised and even once endorsed on stage. The filmmakers approached the film from the perspective of the song and, like Light, simply asked for Cohen’s blessing to do so.
“It was really just this tacit blessing saying, ‘Don’t block this from happening,’ and that was it,” says Geller. “There was never a response from Leonard and there was never any string attached saying, ‘You can’t touch on this subject, or that subject,’ either. It was very much hands-off.”
Goldfine and Geller began collecting research, eventually documenting transformative moments in Cohen’s life and career, from transitioning from poet to singer-songwriter in the 1960s, earlier rejection by labels, and a five-year sojourn to a Zen Buddhist colony in 1994, to the embezzlement of millions of dollars from a then-71-year-old Cohen by former manager Kelley Lynch (who also sold many of his publishing rights) and through his momentous final Old Ideas World Tour, all told through the prism of his iconic 1984 song “Hallelujah.”
Weaving in archival recorded interviews as well as some newer ones with Cohen, including excerpts from dinner conversations with Sloman, Hallelujah is rounded out by stories and reminisces from longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson as well as John Lissauer, who produced Cohen’s seventh album Various Positions and arranged the first-ever recording of “Hallelujah.”
Accompanying the documentary is the anthology, Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah & Songs from His Albums, featuring 17 tracks from Cohen’s career, including a previously unreleased live performance of “Hallelujah” from the 2008 Glastonbury Festival.
Those who have covered the song, including Rufus Wainwright, Eric Church, Amanda Palmer, and Regina Spektor also appear in the film. Cohen’s longtime friend Judy Collins, who released her cover of “Suzanne,” which boosted her fifth album, In My Life, in 1966, remembered a greener Cohen, who lacked confidence in his music and suffered severe performance anxiety in his earlier days.
“Leonard came to me in 1966 and said, ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play a guitar,’ and then he played this song to me,” says Collins in the film, turning to play “Suzanne” on the piano. “And then he sang me ‘Suzanne.’ After he finished I said, ‘Well that is a song and I’m recording it tomorrow.’”
A year later, Collins—who also covered Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” “Joan of Arc,” “Priests, “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Story of Isaac,” “Take This Longing,” “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” and “Bird on the Wire” throughout her career—invited Cohen to play an anti-Vietnam War fundraising concert at Town Hall in New York City and instigated his first-ever performance on stage. “I said you can’t hide in the shadows anymore,” Collins told Cohen. “You have to come sing in public.”