Alleluia! Leonard Cohen’s almighty struggle with a rejected song that became a classic | Leonard Cohen

HHallelujah is one of the most famous songs ever written, but a new film reveals that it took Leonard Cohen 180 attempts over a decade to perfect it – only to have it rejected by his record company. Almost 20 years passed before an animated ogre, Shrek, turned the song into a monster hit.

The directors of the documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song, had unprecedented access to Cohen’s many notebooks, showing his scribbled handwriting and erasures. “We got Leonard’s ‘unspoken blessing’ shortly before his death in 2016,” says co-director Dan Geller.

Cohen had written during his ill-fated meeting with Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff, who had turned down the album, Various positionsof which Hallelujah was the main track.

One day in 1984, John Lissauer, her arranger and producer for many years, received a call. “Leonard asked me if I wanted to do a record because he had some new songs, including one called Hallelujah. I never asked about the lyrics or for him to explain them because that would have been insulting. I just wanted to to be the audience. I really thought Columbia would like that. Boy, was I wrong. Yetnikoff hated that.

But he offered no explanation except for a vague comment about “not liking the mix”. Geller and co-director Dayna Goldfine attempted to interview Yetnikoff. “But his wife said he had dementia,” Goldfine says. He died last year.

“How could Columbia have been so wrong? asks Lissauer.

Cohen in 2009 in Los Angeles: Hallelujah has become “an international anthem – religious or otherwise”. Photography: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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 witnessed the studio recording. While Cohen has never spoken vitriolally about the stunt in public, in a clip from the film, he recounts Columbia telling him, “We know you’re great, but I don’t know if you’re good.”

Hallelujah began life with a religious focus, reflecting Cohen’s Jewish heritage, with allusions to King David and Bathsheba (“The Secret Chord David Played”) as well as Samson and Delilah. Later versions were more witty and sometimes sexual. Lines such as “When David played, his fingers were bleeding” are shown as dropped.

Cohen recorded the date of his first meeting with Issermann in his notebooks. She recalls: “We would have coffee together in the morning before he started working on it. [Hallelujah]. He was playing different versions in front of me. But it is such an enigma; such a symbolic poem. Yes, it’s dark – like a bird flying across the room.

Princess Fiona and Shrek in the 2001 animated film Shrek, which used Hallelujah.
Shrek: The 2001 film’s use of Hallelujah led to numerous cover versions. Photography: Maximum Film/Alamy

After its rejection, Hallelujah was sung at a few concerts by Bob Dylan, but without much success. Cohen himself performed it in the late 1980s, still without real success. It took John Cale with a slightly different version for the song to gain recognition, and then Jeff Buckley, who in 1993 was signed to Columbia Records, albeit under a different boss.

In 1994, Cohen, suffering from excessive alcohol consumption and depression, moved to a Buddhist monastery in California for five years. Shortly after leaving retirement, he learned that Dreamworks was making a computer-animated film, Shrek, in which they planned to use Hallelujah, Shrek lamenting over the captive princess Fiona. It seemed an unlikely choice. “I just thought it was good for the complex mix of feelings, not often there in a family movie,” says by Shrek director Vicky Jenson, who used Cale’s voice in her film. “I also chose it to keep ‘butts on the seats’ because it was a well-known song. But I cut out the naughty bits, like ‘tied you to a kitchen chair’ and ‘saw you bathing on the roof’.”

Goldfine says, “Hallelujah has been revitalized by Shrek.” This led to more cover versions by the likes of kd lang and Brandi Carlile. Hallelujah has also become hugely popular on TV talent shows, with Alexandra Burke winning. The X Factor in 2008 with her rendition, and subsequently topped the charts. Still, Cohen never seemed angry that others had done so well with his song. In a rare reflection on their success, he simply speaks in a clip from the documentary about what is “an irony”.

A rejuvenated Cohen toured the world in 2008-9 and, in the late 70s, again in 2012-13. Hallelujah was always sung, usually with Cohen kneeling towards the end. “It became, in effect, an international anthem – religious or otherwise,” Geller explains.

Hallelujah was performed at the Covid memorial service in early 2021 in Washington, while it is regularly performed at engagements, weddings and funerals. In the documentary, released in theaters this weekend, singer Regina Spektor cites it as “a contemporary prayer” and “a modern survival manual”.

“There’s no doubt that Hallelujah helped rejuvenate Leonard’s career,” Goldfine says. “And finally, a quarter of a century later, he reclaimed it as his own song.”

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