The Epic Story of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

It took seven agonizing years to complete, the U.S. label refused to release the album it was on, and when it finally became a hit, it was thanks to other singers. A new film chronicles the story of ‘Hallelujah’

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The late Leonard Cohen seen performing at Manchester Arena, United Kingdom, in 2013.
The late Leonard Cohen seen performing at Manchester Arena, United Kingdom, in 2013.Credit: Valeria Magri / SOPA Images/Sipa
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

It took Leonard Cohen’s version of “Hallelujah” – one of the most famous songs ever written – 32 years to enter the Billboard Hot 100. When it finally did happen, weeks after the singer-songwriter’s death in November 2016, it entered the charts at a lowly 59. But this completely fails to capture the song’s unique global appeal and renown.

“It’s a gift, it’s a grace,” he said when asked about his ability to write songs like “Hallelujah.” “It’s true you have to stay sharp, keep the tools in working order. But the song itself, where it comes from – it’s a gift. If I knew where these songs come from, I’d go there more often.” Part of this interview features in the new documentary film “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song,” which premieres locally at the Jerusalem Film Festival this month.

Even the legendary singer-songwriter thought was being performed by too many people

It is no coincidence that Cohen described the ability to write songs as a God-given gift. The Jewish-Canadian artist drew inspiration from a rare combination of Jewish scripture and gospel music. The original version of “Hallelujah” (a spiritually charged Hebrew word that ended up in a number of other languages) contains several “Easter egg” references to the biblical tales. These include Samson ad Delilah with “She cut your hair,” or David and Bathsheba with “You saw her bathing on the roof / Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.”

“I asked him once where he draws the creativity from, and he defined it as a ‘bat kol,’” says Cohen’s rabbi, Mordecai Finley, in the film, using the Hebrew term for the voice of divine revelation. He says that Cohen told him: “I open myself to the bat kol, which recognizes my willingness to accept it; she comes, talks and goes away, leaving me to polish the things she said.”

“There is no doubt that Cohen was influenced by his childhood in the Canadian synagogue where his grandfather was a rabbi. It shows in his musical/cantorial style,” says Dan Geller, who co-directed the documentary with his partner Dayna Goldfine. “Throughout his career, Cohen made it clear how Jewish and how connected to Judaism he was. And on the other hand, he sought complementary spiritual sources: the Jewish foundation didn’t provide a complete answer for all the yearnings he felt.”

Late musician Jeff Buckley. His magic brought "Hallelujah" to a wider audience on his album "Grace."Credit: Michel Linssen / Redferns / Getty Images

And the choice of the word “Hallelujah,” which is heard at Sunday mass in thousands of churches worldwide?

Goldfine: “The fact that this word is accepted in different religions is one of the causes of the song’s massive success. But we mustn’t forget that he wrote ‘Hallelujah’ during a period when he was deep into Bible studies and also wrote ‘Book of Mercy’ [a collection of poems that read like modern psalms]. However, Cohen also said it was important to him to remove the word from its religious context and transfer it to the secular world.”

Cohen’s complex attitude toward his Jewishness is clear from another interview shown in the film, in which he reveals that he considered changing his name several times.

“When I began writing songs, I wanted to change my name to September,” he tells one interviewer, who assumes that, like others before him, he wanted to downplay the Jewishness of his surname. But he surprises her by noting that it was not “Cohen” he had a problem with. “I wanted to change my name to September Cohen,” he reveals. “I even wanted to get a tattoo of the new name.”

Why September? “I always felt there’s something special about that month that evoked a sense of a new beginning in me.” This sensation, which Jewish viewers in particular will recognize, has much to do with the fact that this is the month in which the Jewish new year is most commonly celebrated.

A pretty radical move

In addition to exploring the song’s success, the documentary also recounts the far-from-simple journey of a unique artist who was ahead of his time. This may also explain the belated recognition for “Hallelujah,” which Cohen originally recorded in the summer of 1983.

Since it broke into the public consciousness, the song has been covered more than 300 times and featured on dozens of film soundtracks – to the point where it feels like it has almost become an independent entity, separate from Cohen himself.

“I was just reading a review of a movie called ‘Watchmen’ that uses it,” Cohen said in an interview in 2009, “and the reviewer said: ‘Can we please have a moratorium on “Hallelujah” in movies and television shows?’” The singer then added: “And I kind of feel the same way.”

For two years, 'Various Positions' bounced from one U.S. record company to the next. No one wanted to touch it

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in 1987, three years after the release of "Hallelujah."Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images

American listeners weren’t the only ones who needed decades to truly appreciate the song and connect with Cohen’s performance – his baritone voice, the slow tempo and lyrics that pierce the soul like a High Holy Day prayer.

As the film shows, he got the cold shoulder from Columbia Records, which refused to release his “Various Positions” album in America, even though it had already come out in Britain in December 1984. In addition to “Hallelujah,” it also included the hit song “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

For two years, “Various Positions” bounced from one U.S. record company to the next. No one wanted to touch it. Finally, in 1986, a minor independent label called Passport released the album, but it didn’t make much of a splash.

“After a long period of desolation, it seemed like everything was finally coming together,” Cohen said in an interview in 2000 about the making of the album. “I knew it wasn’t just another collection of separate songs that I’d written. I could see, I could feel the unity.”

That was not a feeling shared by Walter Yetnikoff, the then-president of Columbia Records. “When we met, the first thing he did was criticize the suit I was wearing,” Cohen says in interview footage shown in the film. “Then he said to me, ‘Look, Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good.’”

In another snippet, in which he sounds much less amused, Cohen remembers Yetnikoff telling him he wasn’t satisfied with the album mix. “So I said to him, ‘Why don’t you do the mix yourself, Mr. Yetnikoff?’” Cohen recalls with a hint of bitterness.

Bear in mind that, at the time, Cohen was far from enjoying the iconic status and fame he ultimately had. His two previous albums, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (1977) and “Recent Songs” (1979), had flopped commercially and received a chilly critical reception as well. Nevertheless, as Clive Davis – who preceded Yetnikoff as Columbia Records’ president – says in the film: “Rejecting an album after we’ve already paid for it is not something that happens very often. It was a pretty radical move.”

Almost as radical was the writing process for “Hallelujah.” It took nearly seven years, during which time Cohen wrote hundreds of different versions that filled a bunch of notebooks. “I remember sitting on the floor in my underwear, banging my head on the carpet and thinking to myself, ‘I can’t do this. It’s too hard,” he said in a 1992 interview.

In another clip, Cohen recalls a meeting with another musical giant, Bob Dylan, in a Paris café in the ’80s. “I told him that it took me a few years to write ‘Hallelujah.’ But the truth is, I was embarrassed to admit to him that it took even longer,” he says. “And then I told him how much I loved his song ‘I and I.’ When I asked him how long it took him to write it, he said, ‘15 minutes.’”

‘X Factor’ boost

Cohen understood the great potential of “Hallelujah” when he first performed it live at a concert in 1988. Even then, though, the song remained on the cultural margins. It would be two other singers, John Cale and Jeff Buckley, who finally took the song to new heights and came to be more closely identified with it than its creator.

Velvet Underground co-founder Cale included a piano version of the song on a tribute album to Cohen, “I’m Your Fan,” which came out in 1991. Then Buckley performed his version at a special memorial concert for his father, Tim Buckley, which was held at a church in Brooklyn. Three years later, Jeff Buckley included the song on his debut album “Grace,” and also started ending his live concerts with the song.

“Hallelujah,” which Cohen had agonized over for seven years – more than any other song he wrote – suddenly took on a life of its own. The version by the young and charismatic Buckley became a big hit that influenced a new generation of indie artists (and Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb too). Rufus Wainwright recorded another version of the song for the hit animation film “Shrek” (2001), which brought the song to millions of new fans, young and old.

Seven years later, Alexandra Burke won the U.K. version of “The X Factor” thanks to her performance of “Hallelujah,” with her take on the song topping the British charts. This renewed interest also catapulted Buckley and Cohen’s versions back into the U.K. charts, though Cohen had to settle for 36th – far behind the others, but still higher than he’d ever charted before.

“There’s something ironic about it. A mild sense of revenge arose in my heart with the song’s success, since at the time it wasn’t considered good enough to be released in the United States,” Cohen said in an interview at the time.

Dan Geller says he thinks “what Cohen expressed in that interview was more a sense of satisfaction than anger. On the other hand, this is someone who was very precise in his choice of words in interviews – so I think that in this case it’s an interesting choice of words. Ultimately, you have to remember that even after Columbia declined to release the ‘Various Positions’ album, they subsequently worked together on several albums, so I don’t think he meant a desire for vengeance but rather what he described as ‘a mild sense of revenge.’”

Goldfine agrees: “I think it was a way of Cohen saying: ‘I wasn’t mistaken.’ He was such an honest and direct person, which was the secret to his charm. The interviewer asked a question and he responded in his very honest way.”

Still, even when “Hallelujah” reached the top of the U.K. charts, it was because of Burke and Jeff Buckley. Even then, Cohen didn’t get the credit he deserved. How much did that bother him?

Goldfine: “Cohen was consistent in saying that he was happy about each performance and each cover that gave the song new life and kept it in people’s minds. He never took that for granted.”

Geller: “There were times when he felt frustrated by cover versions in which the artists changed the words – such as in versions that were recorded for Christmas. But as long as they preserved the original words, he was happy with every new version. He often expressed frustration that the rest of the songs in his musical catalog were not getting the attention they deserved.”

Goldfine: “There was an absurd situation recently where a Canadian contestant on ‘American Idol’ performed ‘Hallelujah’ and introduced it as a Jeff Buckley song. And this is someone from Canada, the country where Cohen was born and raised!”

Geller says a lot of fans see “Hallelujah” as a song that doesn’t belong to any particular artist. “Not long ago I was at a dinner with friends and when we were talking about the song, one young woman said she was sure it was a piece that was centuries old.”

Did Walter Yetnikoff ever explain why he rejected the album? Did he express any regret?

Geller: “Don’t forget that while Yetnikoff refused to release the album in the United States, the ‘Various Positions’ album was released successfully in many countries other than America and made Columbia a nice chunk of money. But for Cohen, Yetnikoff’s decision was devastating, because he was convinced this was the album that would enable him to penetrate the American market for the first time.

“You also have to remember that this was a time when the entire music industry was changing following the tremendous success of MTV. Cohen didn’t stand a chance versus the elaborate videos of stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson.”

Goldfine: “On the other hand, I can’t forgive Yetnikoff for the disparaging treatment of Cohen, for the refusal to release the album, for the comment on the suit and all the rest. A few years ago, he published an extensive autobiography [2004’s ‘Howling at the Moon’] and I remember reading it eagerly, page after page. I was stunned that not only did he not mention this song, he also made no mention at all of his work with Leonard Cohen.”

“Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song” is showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Saturday July 23, Sunday 24 and Saturday 30. The directors will be in attendance at the screenings on July 23-24.

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