‘Hallelujah’: What you don’t know about Leonard Cohen’s infamous song

·9 min read

From weddings and funerals, to popular TV shows like The O.C. and movies like Shrek, the late Canadian musician Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” is one of the most popular pieces of music in the world, and now documentary filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine dive deep into how the song was developed in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, stressing that while many artists cover the poplar tune ultimately Cohen is the only person in the world who could have crafted the song.

Interestingly, the head of Columbia Records at the time, Walter Yetnikoff, rejected Cohen's 1984 album "Various Positions," which included "Hallelujah," so it very easily could have been a song we could have never heard, but Geller and Goldfine take us through why that wasn't the case.

The filmmakers were inspired to build a whole documentary around Cohen’s song after seeing him perform at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, specifically watching him get on his knees and sing "Hallelujah."

After that experience, the pair had dinner with film writer David Thomson who posed the question about making a documentary about a single song, and that image of Cohen singing “Hallelujah” on his knees is what sparked this film's creation.

Leonard Cohen with his Guitar ready to go out on Tour. Circa late-2000s. (Courtesy of the Cohen Estate)
Leonard Cohen with his Guitar ready to go out on Tour. Circa late-2000s. (Courtesy of the Cohen Estate)

'It feels like you are hearing Leonard narrate his life in the moment'

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song takes you through the circumstances of Cohen, a spiritual seeker and poet, writing “Hallelujah,” with extensive details about his process, largely revealed through a lengthy interview he did with Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a music journalist who regularly interviewed Cohen for almost 30 years, in addition to his longtime girlfriend Dominique Issermann, who saw him writing the song for years.

Alan Light’s book “The Holy or the Broken” became a “holy grail” for Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine‘a research for the documentary.

Goldfine indicated that when she and Geller spoke to Light, asking him if anyone had ever asked him about making a documentary based on his book, the author revealed that the main reason interest dropped off was because Cohen would not agree to be interviewed.

“We were forewarned by Alan Light, who had made his book without an interview with Leonard, that the only way we would get his tacit blessing that would allow us to proceed with Sony Music Publishing, to get the rights to the song, which we needed, would be to tell Robert Kory, his manager, and Leonard himself, 'We don't want an interview, we're not asking anything about needing Leonard's time,'” Geller explained. “It did force us wonderfully to really mine all of those interviews that he did over, basically over 50, 60 years."

"Certainly, there was more than enough to choose from, radio interviews, TV interviews, documentaries that he had appeared in, and it created the circumstance where it feels like you are hearing Leonard narrate his life in the moment of every scene, rather than retrospectively commenting on his life. I think it's part of the feeling where you, for an audience, that you're on a voyage with him, rather than having him tell you about a voyage that he had.”

Cohen portrait, circa early 1980s. Photographer unknown. (Courtesy Cohen Estate)
Cohen portrait, circa early 1980s. Photographer unknown. (Courtesy Cohen Estate)

What is the original version of 'Hallelujah'?

Larry “Ratso” Sloman reveals in an interview in Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song that by his estimation, he remembers Cohen writing around 180 different verses for “Hallelujah,” which introduces an interesting question in the film - what are the words to the song?

It may seem simple to answer, but Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine got access to personal notebooks of Cohen’s, which includes the original version of the song, but the filmmakers also document the shifts in the song through time, including a secular version, John Cale's version and the version used in the animated movie Shrek.

“It’s like getting the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Geller said. “I kept thinking, this must be a trick, they can't really be those notebooks.”

“To see that handwriting and to see him working through that on the page, blackening the page, as he calls it, that was just incredible.”

“We started asking Robert Kory, Leonard's longtime manager towards the end of his life, and also the head of the Cohen Trust, about the notebooks very early on and it took a few years before he would admit to their existence, or that they were still around,” Goldfine explained. “When we looked at one of those notebooks and started seeing the words that Leonard was reading to Ratso, it's just a hair on the back of your neck going up moment.”

The shifts in versions of "Hallelujah" began in the 1990s. Cohen’s then manager contacted Ratso about a tribute album that was in development called “I’m Your Fan” (released in 1991), and asked the music journalist for suggestions for someone to be on the album. Ratso recommended Cale, from the Velvet Underground, who was given additional verses of the song to use for his rendition of the song.

But Cale said he couldn’t sing the religious verses, so the artist, as he says, picked out the “cheeky” ones.

Portrait of singer Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill, Chicago, Illinois, November 18, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Portrait of singer Jeff Buckley at the Green Mill, Chicago, Illinois, November 18, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

It's Cale's recording that the late Jeff Buckley heard and led to the most known version of "Hallelujah." It was used in the Season 1 finale of the 2000s TV show The O.C., it was also used on The West Wing, House, ER, among other TV shows.

Where Geller and Goldfine really excel in the documentary is finding that balance between Cohen’s story and the story of Buckley’s iconic rendition of the song.

“Getting that balance was very difficult because just a little bit one way or the other, and you lose the thread of ‘Hallelujah’ or lose the thread of Leonard's incredible journey as an artist, as a spiritual seeker,” Geller explained. “We just fell in love with so much of the Buckley story."

But that’s not where the covers end, as Vicky Jenson, co-director of the movie Shrek explains, she had been a fan of Cohen since listening to Cale’s version of “‘Hallelujah.” She is the one decided to use Cale’s version in the movie, but had to make the track shorter and take out any of the “naughty” verses.

This shortened version is often what we hear sung over and over again on famous singing competition shows, like American Idol and all different regional version of The X Factor.

The mural of the late Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, inaugurated in November 2017 over a Montreal street, now lit up every night, is viewed on June 23, 2019 on Crescent Street in Montreal. - The mural
The mural of the late Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, inaugurated in November 2017 over a Montreal street, now lit up every night, is viewed on June 23, 2019 on Crescent Street in Montreal. - The mural "Tower of Songs" pays tribute to the late singer-songwriter, born in Montreal, who died on November 7 2016 in his adopted home of Los Angeles. He was 82. Led by Montréal artist Gene Pendon and internationally renowned American street portrait artist El Mac, Tower of Songs took 2 muralists, 13 assistant artists, 240 cans of paint and thousands of hours of work to replicate a photograph taken by his daughter, Lorca Cohen. (Photo by Eric THOMAS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read ERIC THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Why Cohen was the 'only human being in the universe' who could have written 'Hallelujah'

As Dayna Goldfine explains, at the core of the documentary’s narrative is an exploration of why Leonard Cohen is the only person who could have written "Hallelujah," despite all the iconic covers.

“I think our rule of thumb as we went along, especially in the editing process, was does this section or this scene go further in kind of addressing our thesis, which is, why was Leonard Cohen the only human being in the universe who could have written ‘Hallelujah’” Goldfine said.

I just don't think another artist could have done it, and then that would direct us to his life and to the pieces of his life that exemplified why he was that person. It wasn't an easy balance, believe me, the editing process was, I would say, two years and you never get it right the first time.Dayna Goldfine

That being said, there is that battle between Cohen’s words and the impact the Buckley’s version had, not just on the song’s success, but on people around the world.

“It was what was causing me to reconcile my faith and my sexuality at the time, it was what was helping me feel a part of that narrative,” artist Brandi Carlile says in the documentary about the song, particularly listening to Buckley’s version.

“Leonard Cohen somehow understand that 'Hallelujah' wasn’t a church song but that it was actually a moment for realization that life can be desperately hard and for me, that was just something I really wanted to say everyday to myself as I was going through that phase of coming of age and trying to understand what it meant to be young, faithful and gay.”

Coming up on six years after Cohen’s death, the impact of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is greatly felt, particularly moments where we get to see Cohen's handwriting and experience those intimate moments as we remember one of the greatest Canadian icons.

“So much of his writing is confronting the impermanence of life and mortality, and becoming an elder, so that when later in the film, those things become more pressing in his life, it presses into the audience as well,” Geller said.

“It's profound to see someone age across the span of two hours of the film, but also in that aging really come to terms in his songs.”

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song opens July 15 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. The film opens throughout the summer in other cities.

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