Leonard’s Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is an anthem for people who are spiritual, secular, skeptical, romantic, and heartbroken. Now it’s one of the most recognizable songs, but it was a flop upon release in 1984.
The song gained massive popularity when Jeff Buckely covered it on the only album he released before he died at age 30. The song was revived again when it was featured in the animated fairy tale classic “Shrek,” with versions by both John Cale and Rufus Wainwright.
The new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song” tells the story of the infamous song and Cohen’s musical career.
Filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller say there’s more to Cohen than his music. Cohen started out as a lauded poet and a novelist in Canada in the late 1950s. But by the mid 1960s, he wanted to be a singer songwriter.
“He went to New York, and at age 32, was told he was way too old. But Judy Collins heard ‘Suzanne.’ … Then she encouraged Leonard to get on stage and sing it with her. He started recording, and he had a career that was much more successful in Europe and Canada, and he was fumbling along in the United States,” Goldfine says.
By 1984, head of Columbia Records Walter Yetnikoff told Cohen he had to make a hit record or he’d be fired from the record label. At a time when he was competing with artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson, Cohen was told that he was “great,” but “not good.”
“[Yetnikoff recognized] that Leonard was, even at that time, one of the great poets and singer/songwriters — if you just look at it from an artistic, intellectual, spiritual level, but maybe not any good in terms of record sales,” Geller says.
Cohen worked endlessly on the song “Hallelujah,” and Goldfine says she believes that the song covers every subject that fascinated him, whether it was “spiritual or carnal.” He spent years trying to get the song right.
“We think based on the notebooks that we've seen, there's five of them that span the years during which he was working on ‘Hallelujah.’ We think it took him about seven years,” Goldfine says.
Cohen made many versions of the song, and throughout his life he mixed and matched the seven verses every night.
“You've got the version from 1984 that he calls the King David version, much in the way of the Old Testament references in the lyrics. Then he started singing a secular version of the song years later, because he felt that he wanted to broaden the reach of the ‘Hallelujah’ itself,” Geller says.
Despite the song, the album bombed. It wasn’t until Bob Dylan started covering “Hallelujah” live at his shows that Cohen’s song gained popularity.
“Dylan recognizing it … validated Leonard's belief in that song too. It felt good to have someone of Dylan statute, singing the song and that ultimately led her to a path that no one could have predicted,” Geller says.
Perhaps the biggest leap forward for “Hallelujah” came before Jeff Buckley launched the song into the stratosphere. Goldfine says it really happened when John Cale covered it for the cover album of Leonard Cohen songs, “I'm Your Fan.”
“Leonard was kind enough to fax John Cale a certain number of verses and said, ‘Mix and match it to your delight.’ The John Cale version on the ‘I'm Your Fan’ album, which came out around 1991, was the beginning of ‘Hallelujah’s’ inexorable march towards what we think of it as today,” Goldfine says.
Jeff Buckley’s version offered a new sound for “Hallelujah.” Until Buckley, the song was only sung by older male voices.
“Along comes this smashingly handsome guy with an angelic voice. … He had this tragically young death, which shocked everyone in the world, and broke everyone's heart. And in some ways, although it couldn't be proven, there's this sense that that combination of his figure, the figure that Jeff Buckley struck out in the world, and then his untimely tragic death, led to a certain prominence for ‘Hallelujah,’” Goldfine says.
When Cohen has been asked if he likes all the covers of the song, he’s often joked that others should stop singing the song.
“I think he was always incredibly touched when other artists chose to cover his work,” Goldfine says.
Cohen’s songs have stood the test of time, and the film explores Leonard as a songwriter whose songs would be remembered forever.
“He did know that a lot of his songs are timeless. … He kind of knew it, deep down, that these were songs that would last for ages,” Geller says.