“L can’t think of another song with a trajectory that resembles what happened to Hallelujah,” said author Alan Light of Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous magnum opus. “When you think of universal global anthems like Imagine or Bridge Over Troubled Water, they were an instant hit. But Hallelujah was rejected by the record company at first, then completely ignored when it came out.”
So is the legend of Cohen’s signature song, which has captivated generations of listeners with a mystique and weight that sets it apart. Perhaps that’s why the aforementioned Light wrote a book entirely about the song: 2012’s The Holy Or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Improbable Ascent of Hallelujah. It is that book that serves as the basis for the new documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, which premiered earlier this month at the Tribeca film festival. Directed and produced by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, the film provides both a micro and macro view of the song and Cohen, along with their respective and deeply intertwined places in the culture.
“Leonard Cohen, in short, was a prophet,” says Goldfine, who has built a stacked career with Geller directing extensive documentaries focusing on music, including 2005’s Ballets Russes, about the Russian ballet company of the early 20th century. century. “Leonard [was known for] timeless writing and timeless poetry that floats outside a certain era,” Goldfine said. “It addressed the deepest of our human concerns about the desire for connection and the desire for some kind of hope, transcendence and recognition of life’s difficulties.”
While Hallelujah may sound like an old standard, or an old hymn passed down through the ages, it was actually written in 1983 using a skinny Casio electric keyboard. “There is no other songwriter like Cohen,” Light says of the language Cohen used in his art. “His approach to language and craft feels different from anyone else’s work. And they sound rooted in poetry and literature because he first studied as a poet and novelist.” Cohen wrote incessantly, writing 180 verses just for Hallelujah during the writing process. The inherent drama is enhanced by the deep vocals of the original version, with Cohen’s voice deepening after years of smoking cigarettes.
But it was Columbia Records, in a choice similar to Decca Records that turned the then-young Beatles down for a record deal in 1962, that decided that Hallelujah and the album it came from, Various Positions, didn’t have the commercial cachet they had. had. were looking. As the documentary tells, Cohen was crushed and eventually released by an independent label. “Leonard watched with a certain amazement and amusement as this song, which had been rejected and rejected by his record label, became his signature song,” says Light of Cohen’s response to the later success. “He spoke several times about the sense of revenge or justice of how the song was later recognized and appreciated.” Cohen’s version didn’t hit the Billboard charts until 2016 at the age of 82.
AWhy Hallelujah reached the heights it did is due to a unique blend of inventive covers, cultural coincidences, and a magical quality the song undoubtedly possesses. Search for the song on Spotify today and it’s Jeff Buckley’s version, not Cohen’s, which is the top result; the combination of the song’s seemingly haunting subject matter and Buckley’s gritty 1994 recording, coupled with the singer-songwriter’s drowning death at just 30 years of age, adds an extra light weight. Buckley’s version was entered into the National Register of the Library of Congress in 2013. Then there’s the popular version by John Cale, the first artist to cover the song in 1991.
But oddly enough, the song’s modern ubiquity can be traced back to its prominent placement in Shrek, the second-highest-grossing film of 2001, which effectively propelled Hallelujah to the higher echelons of popular culture. (The film features Cale’s version, while the soundtrack features Rufus Wainwright’s cover). Perhaps it’s fitting that an animated comedy would propel Cohen’s legend, given that, according to Geller, the biggest misconception about Cohen himself is that he was originally considered the lead singer of gloom and doom. “Instead, we found a guy who was so funny and so dry,” Geller explained. “Almost everything he said came out with a twinkle in his eye.”
In recent years, Hallelujah has had dozens of placements in TV and movies (from Scrubs to Zack Snyder’s Justice League) and has been sung by everyone from Bob Dylan to Bono, Brandi Carlile to Il Divo. Comedian Kate McKinnon sang it in character as Hillary Clinton to open the first episode of Saturday Night Live after Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Meanwhile, Yolanda Adams performed her National Covid Remembrance Day viewing at the Lincoln Memorial last year. Not to mention the plethora of contestants in singing competitions, from The X Factor to American Idol, who sang about majors and minors coming for better or for worse.
“It’s a Rorschach test,” Light says of the various interpretations of the lyrics, including the idea that it’s meant to be a Christian song. In reality, as the film tells, Cohen was Jewish. “The word Hallelujah occurs in all religions and faiths. Even though Leonard’s own Judaism clearly tells so much about what he’s put into the song, it’s one that people get out of it what they need and what they want it to be. I think that’s why it’s played everywhere from weddings to funerals and births.” Geller of Cohen’s musical output adds, “He has these lyrics and very beautiful musical arrangements that are timeless and can last and be relevant to audiences of all ages.”
For the filmmakers, it was footage of Cohen singing Hallelujah onstage at a performance in Oakland, California that partly inspired them to make up the documentary. “I just couldn’t think of it,” Goldfine says. “It’s more than a song. [This is a] documentary about one’s own center, and one’s own role and place in life.”
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song hits US theaters July 1, Australia July 14, and the UK later this year