Hallelujah, a song Cohen wrote for a decade and changed 180 times

Hallelujah, a song Cohen wrote for a decade and changed 180 times
Hallelujah, a song Cohen wrote for a decade and changed 180 times

Hallelujah is one of the most famous songs ever written. However, the new film reveals that it took Leonard Cohen 180 tries over the course of a decade to complete it. Even so, his record company rejected the song.

It was almost 20 years before the animated bogeyman, Shrek, turned the song into an incredibly big hit.

The authors of the documentary film Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song they had unprecedented access to a number of Cohen’s notebooks, showing traces of writing and erasures.

“We received Leonardo’s ‘silent blessing’ shortly before he passed away in 2016,” says one of the film’s directors, Dan Geller.

Big No by Columbia Records

Cohen scheduled a meeting with Columbia Records president Walter Jetnikoff, who rejected the album. Various Positionson which it is Hallelujah was the main track.

One day in 1984, John Lissauer, his longtime arranger and producer, got a call.

“Leonard asked me if I wanted to make a record because he has a few new songs, including the one called Hallelujah. I never asked for the lyrics or for him to explain them because that would be offensive. I simply wanted to be an audience. I really thought they would be delighted in ‘Columbia’. How wrong I was. Jetnikoff didn’t really like it,” said Lissauer.

But he gave no explanation other than some vague comment about “not liking the mix”.

Documentary directors Dan Geller and Dana Goldfine attempted to interview Jetnikoff: “His wife said he had dementia.” He passed away last year.

“How could Columbia get it so terribly wrong?” Lissauer wonders.

The rejection was devastating for Cohen. “He was completely broken,” says French photographer Dominique Isserman, who lived with Cohen while he was writing songs for the album and was in the studio during the recording.

Although Cohen never publicly spoke ill of the hit, in one clip in the film the singer-songwriter talked about being told at Columbia, “We know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re good.”

Hallelujah began life with a religious bent, reflecting Cohen’s Jewish heritage, with allusions to King David and Bat Sheva (from the lyrics: The secret chord that David played – Secret chord that David played), as well as Samson and Delilah.

Later versions were more spiritual and sometimes sexual. Verses like When David played, his fingers bled (When David played, his fingers paled) are shown as those which the author has given up.

Cohen recorded the date of his first meeting with Isermanov in his notebooks.

“We would have coffee together in the morning before he started working on the song (Hallelujah). He would play different versions in front of me. But it was such a puzzle; such a symbolic song. Yes, it’s vague – like a bird flying around the room,” recalls Dominik Isserman.

After being rejected, Hallelujah was among the songs that Bob Dylan sang at several concerts, but without much success.

Cohen himself performed Hallelujah in the late 1980s, again without much success. The song needed John Cale with a slightly different version to gain more recognition, and then Jeff Buckley, who signed to Columbia Records in 1993, albeit with other front men.

Unexpected choice in Shrek

In 1994, due to depression and excessive alcohol consumption, Cohen moved to a Buddhist monastery in California for five years. Shortly after leaving that refuge, he learned that Dreamworks was making an animated film Shrek in which the authors planned to use his song, in the scene where Shrek laments over the captive Princess Fiona.

“I thought it was the right music for a complex mix of emotions, which is not often present in family films,” says the director. Shrek Vicki Jenson, who used the version sung by John Cale in the film.

“I also chose it to keep people glued to their seats because it was a well-known song.” But I threw out the ‘naughty’ parts, such as ‘I tied you to a kitchen chair’ and ‘I saw you bathing on the roof,'” the cartoon director explained.

Documentary director Dana Goldfine believes that it is Hallelujah brought Shrek back to life. This led to more covers such as those performed by Kay-Dee Lang and Brandi Carlyle.

Hallelujah has also become very popular in TV singing competition shows. Even Alexandra Berk won in 2008 to the X factor performing his own version that went on to conquer the music charts.

An anthem that brought the singer-songwriter to his knees

Still, Cohen never seemed to be upset that others did so well with his song. In a rare reflection on their success, he describes it as “irony” in the documentary.

Leonard Cohen had a world tour in 2008 and 2009, when he was already well into his eighth decade. He held another series of concerts in 2012 and 2013. Hallelujah was always sung, and Cohen was usually on his knees by the end of the track.

“It has become an international anthem – religious and any other,” says documentary director Dan Geller.

Hallelujah was performed at the commemoration of those who died from covid, at the beginning of 2021 in Washington, while it is regularly played at engagements, weddings and funerals.

In the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song singer Regina Spektor describes Cohen’s song as a “contemporary prayer” and “a manual for modern survival.”

“There is absolutely no doubt that it is.” Hallelujah helped rejuvenate Leonardo’s career. And after all, a quarter of a century later, he declared it his song,” concluded director Goldfine.

The article is in Serbian

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