Hallelujah is one of the most famous songs ever written, yet a new film reveals it took Leonard Cohen 180 attempts over a decade to perfect – only for it to be rejected by his record company. Nearly 20 years went by before an animated ogre, Shrek, turned the song into a monster hit.
The makers of the documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, had unprecedented access to Cohen’s many notebooks, showing his scrawled handwriting and deletions. “We got Leonard’s ‘tacit blessing’ not long before he died in 2016,” says co-director Dan Geller.
Cohen had pencilled in his ill-fated meeting with the president of Columbia Records, Walter Yetnikoff, who turned down the album, Various Positions, on which Hallelujah was the main track.
One day in 1984, John Lissauer, his arranger and producer of many years, got a call. “Leonard asked if I wanted to make a record as he had some new songs, including one called Hallelujah. I never asked about the lyrics or for him to explain them as that would have been insulting. I simply wanted to be the audience. I really thought Columbia would like it. Boy, was I wrong. Yetnikoff hated it.”
But he provided no explanation except for some vague comment about “not liking the mix”. Geller and co-director Dayna Goldfine tried to interview Yetnikoff. “But his wife said he had dementia,” says Goldfine. He died last year.
“How could Columbia get it so wrong?” asks Lissauer.
The rejection was devastating for Cohen. “He was absolutely crushed,” says French photographer Dominique Issermann, who lived with Cohen while he was writing the album and had sat in on the studio recording. While Cohen never spoke vitriolically about the blow in public, in one clip in the film he talks of being told by Columbia: “We know you are great, but don’t know if you are any good”.
Hallelujah began its life with a religious slant, reflecting Cohen’s Jewish heritage, with allusions to King David and Bathsheba (“The secret chord that David played”) as well as Samson and Delilah. Later versions were more spiritual, and sometimes sexual. Lines such as “When David played, his fingers bled” are shown as abandoned.
Cohen recorded the date of his first encounter with Issermann in his notebooks. She recalled: “We’d have coffee together in the morning before he’d start work on it [Hallelujah]. He would play different versions in front of me. But it is such a riddle; such a symbolic poem. Yes, it’s obscure – like a bird flying round the room.”
After its rejection, Hallelujah was sung at a few concerts by Bob Dylan, but to no great acclaim. Cohen himself performed it at the end of the 1980s, again with no real success. It needed John Cale with a slightly different version for the song to gain greater recognition, and then Jeff Buckley, who in 1993 was signed by Columbia Records, albeit under a different boss.
In 1994, Cohen, suffering from excessive drinking and depression, moved for five years into a Buddhist monastery in California. Soon after leaving the retreat, he learned that Dreamworks was making a computer animated film, Shrek, in which they planned to use Hallelujah, with Shrek lamenting about the captive Princess Fiona. It seemed an unlikely choice. “I just thought it was right for the complex mix of feelings, not often there in a family movie,” says Shrek’s director Vicky Jenson, who used Cale’s voice in her film. “I also chose it to keep ‘butts on seats’ as it was a well-known song. But I cut the naughty bits, such as ‘tied you to a kitchen chair’ and ‘saw you bathing on the roof’.”
Goldfine says: “Hallelujah was revitalised by Shrek.” It led to more cover versions by the likes of kd lang and Brandi Carlile. Hallelujah also became hugely popular on TV talent shows, with Alexandra Burke winning The X Factor in 2008 with her rendition, and subsequently topping the charts. Yet Cohen never seemed angered that others had fared so well with his song. In a rare musing about their success, he simply speaks in one clip in the documentary about that being “an irony”.
A rejuvenated Cohen toured worldwide in 2008-9 and, in his late 70s, again in 2012-13. Hallelujah was always sung, usually with Cohen on his knees near its end. “It became, effectively, an international hymn – religious or otherwise,” says Geller.
Hallelujah was performed at the Covid memorial service in early 2021 in Washington, while it is regularly played at engagements, weddings and funerals. In the documentary, released in cinemas this weekend, the singer Regina Spektor cites it as “a contemporary prayer” and “a manual for modern survival”.
“There is absolutely no doubt that Hallelujah helped rejuvenate Leonard’s career,” says Goldfine. “And finally, a quarter of a century on, it was reclaimed by him as his own song.”
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