Leonard Cohen’s signature song, “Hallelujah,” had its journey to music immortality stopped almost at birth by a record executive. The chief of Cohen’s label, Columbia, vetoed the finished album containing the track in 1984 because he considered it unmarketable in the United States.
An intervention by an influential labelmate of Cohen’s, one Bob Dylan, helped “Hallelujah” to escape front-office purgatory and, over time, become the soaring secular hymn that musicians love to cover and listeners play at both weddings and funerals.
Dylan, in fact, might have been the first to cover the song. “Dylan loved ‘Hallelujah,’” filmmaker Dayna Goldfine said at Deadline’s Contenders Documentary event. Goldfine and her husband, Daniel Geller, are co-directors and co-writers of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, from Sony Pictures Classics.
Pairing archival footage of Cohen himself with interviewees including Brandi Carlisle, Eric Church and Judy Collins, Hallelujah looks at the late Cohen, who died in 2016 at 82, “through the prism of his most famous song,” Goldfine said.
“So it’s both an exposition of the unbelievably bizarre and dramatic arc that that song took out into the world,” she said, “and also a look at Leonard Cohen the man, the spiritual seeker and the artist.”
A poet and novelist before he took up songwriting in the 1960s, with folk singer Collins as one of his early champions, Montreal native Cohen worked on “Hallelujah” for years before recording it. As a Rolling Stone writer interviewed in the film found out, Cohen also penned dozens of new verses for it afterward as he reconsidered — or rued — some of the original recorded lyrics.
“So of all the songs, it feels like the one where, in a way, he distilled so much of his essence into the song,” Geller said. “And that’s probably why it took about seven years for him to write the first version that’s recorded. And then … he went back and started writing these other verses as he, as he said, began to choke on some of the meaning of what he had written before.”
In the meantime, Dylan was championing “Hallelujah” by playing it on tour before it had an official U.S. release. Cohen’s accompanying nine-song album, Various Positions, found an outlet at a small (now-defunct) record label in 1984, and is today considered among the singer-songwriter’s best, with a handful of signature Cohen songs.
Neither the song nor the LP charted in the U.S., but ‘Hallelujah’ made the UK Top 40 and Various Positions reached No. 52 there and went Top 10 in Scandinavia.
Columbia Records eventually endorsed it, too, re-releasing the album on CD in 1990. The compact-disc era is when “Hallelujah” went viral. An ethereal 1994 cover version by Jeff Buckley introduced the song to millennials — and later made Rolling Stone‘s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s since been taken up by everyone from Jennifer Hudson to Jon Bon Jovi to Kate McKinnon channeling Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live.
“I like to say it’s one of the most generous songs that was ever written,” Goldfine said, “because it allows each person who chooses to cover it to bring themselves to it.”
“And also, it’s a really catchy tune,” Geller said.
Check back Wednesday for the panel video.