The thousand lives of “Hallelujah”, cult song by Leonard Cohen

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published on Sunday, July 10, 2022 at 06:45

It’s a universal tune that suits both Jeff Buckley and Shrek. Yet the cult song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen was ignored when it was released almost forty years ago, an extraordinary fate told in a new documentary in theaters 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 covered 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, the unforgettable by Jeff Buckley and the original by Leonard Cohen.

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

– Snowball –

“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 screening in New York. of the documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song”, in which he participated as 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 being a singer, a practicing Jew who later retired to a Buddhist monastery, Leonard Cohen sweated for years to write the spiritual and colorful verses of “Hallelujah”, 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 positions”, where the song appears, in the United States.

“It’s 1984, a boom time for the music industry. It’s the year of +Born in the USA+ (Bruce Springsteen), +Like a Virgin+ (Madonna), +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).

– Bono’s apology –

The documentary shows how “Hallelujah”, discovered by new generations in the cartoon “Shrek” (2001) — then in “Tous en scène” 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 is 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 to “apologize” for a trip-hop version from 1995, in which he talks more than he sings, he says smiling.

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