From Shrek to Jeff Buckley, the Best and Weirdest Covers of 'Hallelujah'

We're not saying Office Space was right to call Michael Bolton a "no-talent ass clown," we're just saying his "Hallelujah" isn't good.
We're not saying Office Space was right to call Michael Bolton a "no-talent ass clown," we're just saying his "Hallelujah" isn't good. Allen Berezovsky/Getty
It’s time to talk about everyone’s favorite Leonard Cohen song. Sorry, it’s not “Dear Heather.” Even if you’re not super familiar with Cohen’s discography (which is far more extensive than many realize), you’ve probably heard about a little song called “Hallelujah.” Whether you were there for the song’s debut in 1984 or you first heard it in Shrek, you probably know the words to this folk tune.

Or, at least some of them. The exact meaning of Cohen’s lyrics has been debated ever since its release. Remarkably, the song's religious themes haven’t caused it to dip in popularity at all. Certain sections of "Hallelujah” are favored by different audiences. We’re guessing that “she tied you to a kitchen chair” wouldn’t be playing at a Christmas church service; they may just stick with “David played, and it pleased the Lord.”

Whether you’re interested in the religious, sexual, self-indulgent, optimistic or downbeat interpretations of the classic song, “Hallelujah” is easily one of the most analyzed tracks in modern music history. The song is so nuanced that it inspired the recent documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, which will be released at both the Angelika locations in Dallas and Plano this weekend.

The documentary gives some context on Cohen’s life, and how his faith, relationships and artistic struggles inspired the song. You’ll hear the song quite a lot; the documentary shows how different artists, movies, live performances and covers have interpreted the song over the years. We’re taking a look at some of the best, most moving renditions of “Hallelujah.” We’ll also look at some of the most embarrassing uses of Cohen’s most decorated classic.

Best: Jeff Buckley’s Cover

A significant portion of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song focuses on how influential Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” was. Many of the artists interviewed for the documentary say that Buckley’s version was the first that they ever heard. Outside of Buckley’s incredible vocal range, his “Hallelujah” hits on a different level. It was recorded by Buckley only a few years before his death and is now even more haunting. Worst: The Watchmen Sex Scene
While Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” called attention to the song’s more sexual elements, we really didn’t need a superhero sex scene to add to it. Watchmen features a painfully uncomfortable sequence in which Silk Specter and Nite Owl consummate their relationship in a slow motion scene that uses “Hallelujah.” Best: Alexandra Burke on The X Factor
Also earmarked in the documentary is Alexandra Burke’s winning performance on The X Factor during the talent competition's fifth season. Cohen’s slow, morose song is turned into an epic ballad by Burke. If you associate “Hallelujah” with the Christmas season, it’s probably because of Burke. Her version of “Hallelujah” topped the U.K. charts during the Christmas season of 2008. Worst: The Burke vs. Buckley Fandom Battles
Burke’s mega success with “Hallelujah” meant that there were two competing versions vying for the top of the charts. Unfortunately, this inspired an ugly battle between Burke and Buckley's fandoms over which version was better. Buckley fans claimed that The X Factor was too commercial, and Burke replied that Buckley's version of the song “did nothing” for her.

Best: The Rufus Wainwright Cover for Shrek

Don’t laugh. As Cohen himself recalls in the film, the DreamWorks animated movie inspired a new wave of popularity for the song after it was introduced to a generation of young viewers. It’s kind of hilarious to think back about the sheer diversity on the Shrek soundtrack: what can you say about an album that also includes Smash Mouth, Neil Diamond, Baha Men, Joan Jett and The Proclaimers? We say it has everything.
Worst: Tori Kelly in Sing
We really don’t need another animated movie that tries to reinvent “Hallelujah.” While Tori Kelly’s version of the song isn’t bad out of context, it just feels weird to hear Cohen’s beautiful lyrics coming from an animated elephant. Your kids have already seen Shrek, for crying out loud! Best: The West Wing
Remember when you could feel a little optimistic about the state of democracy? The West Wing offered a more positive take on what good can come when politicians try to work together to solve our problems. In one of the most powerful moments in the show’s entire run, C.J. hears of a friend’s passing with “Hallelujah” playing in the background. Worst: Michael Bolton’s Cover
This is just an awkward union of Buckley’s sexual version, Burke’s ballad version and Cohen’s original. We love Michael Bolton, but maybe he should stick to his Lonely Island collaborations and leave Leonard Cohen alone. Bolton’s version is melodramatic and hackneyed in every way imaginable. Best: Scrubs
Scrubs holds up as one of the funniest sitcoms of the early 21st century, but the show knew when to take itself seriously, too. J.D. almost loses it during a difficult conversation with a patient. Who knew that this wacky workplace comedy could make us cry every now and again? Worst: Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Zack Snyder really, really wants you to know that Superman is supposed to be a messianic figure. There’s a ton of comically overt religious imagery in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League uses “Hallelujah.” The director has also called the superhero "Christ-like." Apparently, he forgot that Superman was actually created by two Jewish men. Best: The John Cale Cover
While the Rufus Wainwright version of “Hallelujah” plays on the Shrek soundtrack, it's actually John Cale’s version that is used in the actual movie. Cale’s cover originally appeared on his 1991 album I’m Your Fan, which was his tribute to Cohen. Worst: The Pitchforks
Look, “Hallelujah” can work as an a capella song. Unfortunately, a 2012 album from The Pitchforks tried to spice up Cohen’s words with a rap segment to disastrous results. If you’re looking for an a cappella version that’s actually respectful of the song’s history, try the cover included on Straight No Chaser’s 2013 album Under the Influence.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.