Saturday, January 13, 2024


So I came across this documentary on Netflix, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen: A Journey, A Song. It's the story of the late Canadian singer-songwriter's career, focusing in the second half on the adventures, extending far beyond Cohen himself, of his most famous song, "Hallelujah."

A number of the interviewees agree that it was the song's appearance in the movie Shrek in 2001 that was the turning point in its rise to fame. That was certainly where I encountered it. Up to that point I wasn't at all familiar with Cohen's work, though I knew of him. What struck me about this was its perfect placement in the film. In a traditional comedic plot, there's a point just before the happy ending when everything seems lost, doomed to failure. This is that spot in this movie. Shrek and Fiona are both claiming to be satisfied with how things have turned out, but in fact they're both deeply unhappy. What better to illustrate that odd and specific combination of feelings than a song whose repeated exclamations of the joyous word "hallelujah" are belied by the song itself being deeply subdued, even mournful? It stuck with me, and obviously with others.

The documentary's greatest service is to straighten out the confusion over the song's lyrics. Cohen claims in interviews to have written dozens, even over a hundred, verses for the song over several years of gestation, though the notebooks shown in the film suggest that many of those verses were fragmentary or just variants of others.

The wording varies a little from what the film presents in graphics onscreen (or for that matter from what Cohen sings), but the standard verses are all here and you can follow along.

Cohen recorded the song in 1984 for an album which his label refused to release, so it didn't make much of an impact, though the album found its way to market via a small label. At that time the song had four verses, which were the four numbered verses in the link. That's what the documentary calls the sacred version.

Several years later, Cohen, when singing it in concert, changed the lyrics. According to the documentary, he dropped the first three verses and replaced them with new ones, keeping only the fourth. The new verses are the three labeled in the link as "additional lyrics." The documentary calls this the secular version. (Although in this performance from 1988 he doesn't include the old fourth verse but repeats the first of the new verses, and in later years his performances reverted to the sacred version.)

When John Cale recorded a cover version, accompanied by himself on piano, for a Cohen tribute album in 1991, he combined the two sets of lyrics. He dropped verses 3-4 of the sacred version, including the verse that Cohen retained for the secular version, and sang verses 1-2 of the sacred version plus the three new ones from the secular version, creating a five-verse version.

According to the documentary, this combo was the basis (allowing for small variants in wording) of most subsequent cover versions of the song, specifically one by Jeff Buckley that seems to have been the impulse for a lot of other performers to take it up, including (interviewed in the documentary) k.d. lang (who reduces Cale's version to four verses by omitting the second of the secular verses).

It was Cale's recording that was used in Shrek, though a different one by Rufus Wainwright appeared on the movie's record album. For the movie, the song was cut down to three verses, both to fit the time needed and to eliminate what the director calls the naughty bits. Those verses are the first of the sacred version, and the first and third of the secular version - minus the first line, "Maybe there's a God above," of the last verse. (Wainwright's recording is of the full Cale version.)

Alexandra Burke, who is shown in the documentary winning one of those British "you've got talent" competitions with a gospel-tinged cover of the song, also used three verses from Cale, but a different three. Hers has the first two verses of the sacred version plus the third verse of the secular version.

More intriguing for me, but unmentioned in the documentary, is the version that Kate McKinnon played on piano and sang in the persona of Hillary Clinton to open the post-election show of Saturday Night Live in 2016. She sang the first of the sacred version and the first of the secular version, as in Shrek, but concluded by resurrecting Cohen's final verse from the original version, which Cale had omitted (it's verse 4 in the online lyrics). These lyrics - "I did my best, it wasn't much / ... / And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah" - are uncannily appropriate for the circumstances, especially with McKinnon's Clinton then turning to camera and saying, "I'm not giving up, and neither should you."

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