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Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, a song that has known a thousand lives

Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, a song that has known a thousand lives

Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Céline Dion… All sang this title not quite like the others which is at the heart of a documentary.

It’s a universal tune that suits both Jeff Buckley and Shrek. Yet Leonard Cohen’s cult song Hallelujah was ignored when it was released almost forty years ago, an extraordinary fate recounted in a new theatrical documentary in the United States. For many, it is still a piece of Jeff Buckley, the rocker with the face and voice of an angel, who died in 1997 at the age of 30. But from Bob Dylan to Bon Jovi, from Céline Dion to Andrea Bocelli, who did not put his voice on the verses loaded with biblical references and eroticism by the Canadian poet who died in 2016. In 2008, when it was successfully resumed in gospel mode by Alexandra Burke in the British TV competition The X Factor, Hallelujah ranked 1st, 2nd and 36th in the English Music Charts, respectively Burke’s versions, Jeff Buckley’s Unforgettable and Leonard Cohen’s original.

“I don’t see any other song with such a trajectory”assures AFP the music journalist Alan Light, author of a book on Hallelujah (“The Holy or the Broken”, not translated into French), released in 2012 and reissued in an updated version.

A spiritual song

“It took 10 years, 20 years, going through all these different versions, and then it picks up momentum, and the snowball gets bigger and bigger”he adds on the sidelines of a New York screening of the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song, in which he participated as an advisor and producer. Because as this film by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, inspired by Alan Light’s book, tells us, the song was first promised to oblivion.

A poet before becoming a singer, a practicing Jew who later retired to a Buddhist monastery, Leonard Cohen sweated for years to write the witty and colorful verses ofHallelujah, an evocation of King David, his music and his temptations. He leaves out dozens of verses.

But the Columbia record company refuses to release the disc Various positionswhere the song appears, in the United States. “It’s 1984, it’s a boom time for the music industry. It’s the year of Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen) Like a Virgin (Madonna), of Purple Rain (Prince)”, explains Alan Light. A few years later, Bob Dylan released the song from anonymity, in a blues-rock cover. Then John Cale, one of the founders of the Velvet Underground, gave it a more sensual turn in 1991, before Jeff Buckley and his even more erotic version, in the album Grace (1994).

If, for you, it’s a religious song, that’s fine. If it’s a broken love song, great, you can too.

Alan Light

The documentary shows how Hallelujahdiscovered by new generations in the cartoon Shrek (2001)- then in All on stage in 2016 – has become a piece of popular culture. In 2010, the Canadian kd lang took it over with a powerful voice at the Vancouver Winter Olympics ceremony. Eleven years later, it’s still Hallelujah which is sung during a tribute to the victims of Covid-19 in Washington, in front of Joe Biden.

For Alan Light, there is first the “beauty of melody”. But also words that leave room for interpretation. “If, for you, it’s a religious song, that’s fine. If it’s a broken love song, great, you can too”. And “there is no wrong way to play it”he explains, recalling a cover of the ukulele virtuoso, the American Jake Shimabukuro.

But when Alan Light interviewed Bono for his book, the U2 singer still wanted “apologize” for a trip-hop version from 1995, in which he talks more than he sings, he says with a smile.

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