Hallelujah is without doubt one of the most well-known songs ever written, but a brand new movie reveals it took Leonard Cohen 180 makes an attempt over a decade to excellent – just for it to be rejected by his report firm. Practically 20 years glided by earlier than an animated ogre, Shrek, turned the tune right into a monster hit.
The makers of the documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Tune, had unprecedented entry to Cohen’s many notebooks, displaying his scrawled handwriting and deletions. “We received Leonard’s ‘tacit blessing’ not lengthy earlier than he died in 2016,” says co-director Dan Geller.
Cohen had pencilled in his ill-fated assembly with the president of Columbia Information, Walter Yetnikoff, who turned down the album, Numerous Positions, on which Hallelujah was the primary observe.
Someday in 1984, John Lissauer, his arranger and producer of a few years, received a name. “Leonard requested if I wished to make a report as he had some new songs, together with one known as Hallelujah. I by no means requested concerning the lyrics or for him to elucidate them as that might have been insulting. I merely wished to be the viewers. I actually thought Columbia would really like it. Boy, was I incorrect. Yetnikoff hated it.”
However he offered no rationalization apart from some imprecise remark about “not liking the combo”. Geller and co-director Dayna Goldfine tried to interview Yetnikoff. “However his spouse mentioned he had dementia,” says Goldfine. He died final yr.
“How may Columbia get it so incorrect?” asks Lissauer.
The rejection was devastating for Cohen. “He was completely crushed,” says French photographer Dominique Issermann, who lived with Cohen whereas he was writing the album and had sat in on the studio recording. Whereas Cohen by no means spoke vitriolically concerning the blow in public, in a single clip within the movie he talks of being instructed by Columbia: “We all know you’re nice, however don’t know in case you are any good”.
Hallelujah started its life with a non secular slant, reflecting Cohen’s Jewish heritage, with allusions to King David and Bathsheba (“The key chord that David performed”) in addition to Samson and Delilah. Later variations have been extra non secular, and typically sexual. Traces comparable to “When David performed, his fingers bled” are proven as deserted.
Cohen recorded the date of his first encounter with Issermann in his notebooks. She recalled: “We’d have espresso collectively within the morning earlier than he’d begin work on it [Hallelujah]. He would play completely different variations in entrance of me. However it’s such a riddle; such a symbolic poem. Sure, it’s obscure – like a chook flying around the room.”
After its rejection, Hallelujah was sung at a number of concert events by Bob Dylan, however to no nice acclaim. Cohen himself carried out it on the finish of the Eighties, once more with no actual success. It wanted John Cale with a barely completely different model for the tune to achieve better recognition, after which Jeff Buckley, who in 1993 was signed by Columbia Information, albeit underneath a special boss.
In 1994, Cohen, affected by extreme consuming and despair, moved for 5 years right into a Buddhist monastery in California. Quickly after leaving the retreat, he discovered that Dreamworks was making a pc animated movie, Shrek, through which they deliberate to make use of Hallelujah, with Shrek lamenting concerning the captive Princess Fiona. It appeared an unlikely alternative. “I simply thought it was proper for the advanced mixture of emotions, not usually there in a household film,” says Shrek’s director Vicky Jenson, who used Cale’s voice in her movie. “I additionally selected it to maintain ‘butts on seats’ because it was a well known tune. However I lower the naughty bits, comparable to ‘tied you to a kitchen chair’ and ‘noticed you bathing on the roof’.”
Goldfine says: “Hallelujah was revitalised by Shrek.” It led to extra cowl variations by the likes of kd lang and Brandi Carlile. Hallelujah additionally grew to become massively in style on TV expertise exhibits, with Alexandra Burke successful The X Issue in 2008 along with her rendition, and subsequently topping the charts. But Cohen by no means appeared angered that others had fared so properly along with his tune. In a uncommon musing about their success, he merely speaks in a single clip within the documentary about that being “an irony”.
A rejuvenated Cohen toured worldwide in 2008-9 and, in his late 70s, once more in 2012-13. Hallelujah was at all times sung, normally with Cohen on his knees close to its finish. “It grew to become, successfully, a world hymn – non secular or in any other case,” says Geller.
Hallelujah was carried out on the Covid memorial service in early 2021 in Washington, whereas it’s repeatedly performed at engagements, weddings and funerals. Within the documentary, launched in cinemas this weekend, the singer Regina Spektor cites it as “a up to date prayer” and “a guide for contemporary survival”.
“There’s completely little doubt that Hallelujah helped rejuvenate Leonard’s profession,” says Goldfine. “And eventually, 1 / 4 of a century on, it was reclaimed by him as his personal tune.”