In the new documentary, Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song, directors Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine trace the history of the song that took 26 years to become Leonard Cohen’s most famous composition. The film doubles as a biography of Cohen, using “Hallelujah” as a way to explore his life and creative process, but it also works as a cautionary tale. Originally included on the little-heard 1984 album Various Positions, “Hallelujah” seemed destined for obscurity until the massive success of 2001’s Shrek, when John Cale’s cover appeared in the film and Rufus Wainwright’s version was featured on its best-selling soundtrack. From there, “Hallelujah” took on a life of its own, becoming a staple of weddings, funerals and reality shows. Too, too many reality shows.
In a dizzying montage, the documentary mixes clips of singing-competition contestants emoting “Hallelujah” on American Idol, The Voice, The X Factor and other similar shows, a trend that helped snowball the song’s popularity in the ’00s. This time-lapse survey of overuse concludes with a 2008 interview with Cohen himself at the height of “Hallelujah”-mania, when his version simultaneously appeared on the UK charts along with renditions by Jeff Buckley and X Factor contestant Alexandre Burke. Cohen’s dry comment: “I think people should stop singing it for a little while.”
It’s hard not to agree. It’s not that the song isn’t great: Its greatness is part of the problem. Even the most powerful song can be overexposed, particularly when used as a shortcut to unearned profundity. (The documentary thankfully omits “Hallelujah”’s awkward use in a sex scene from Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and Kate McKinnon’s baffling rendition in character as Hillary Clinton on SNL after Trump’s 2016 election.)
Fortunately, Hollywood’s reflexive overuse of “Hallelujah” seems to have passed: Overplayed songs have seasons, and seasons fade. Since the Cohen overdose, music coordinators in Hollywood moved on to other tunes, falling in and out of love with such too-oft-heard songs as Band of Horses’ slow-burning “The Funeral,” Arvo Pärt’s mournful, classical “Spiegel Im Spiegel,” and Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” to name just a few.
But what tracks are in danger of being worn out in 2022? Here are a handful of today’s “Hallelujah”s.
“Best Friend,” Saweetie feat. Doja Cat
A kind of swaggering successor to Icona Pop and Charli XCX’s once-inescapable mid-’10s staple “I Love It” (made famous by Girls, then recycled by Superstore, Lucifer, Pretty Little Liars, etc., etc.), “Best Friend” instantly summons up a sense of rebellion…but not so much rebellion that it couldn’t be used in the trailer to Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers (with some creative bleeping). Released in January 2021, the song has been a soundtrack staple ever since, turning up in Inventing Anna, The Bold Type, Doogie Kamealoha M.D., Single Drunk Female, and Head of the Class. And it’s destined to keep turning up until another song with a similar vibe replaces it.
“On the Nature of Daylight,” Max Richter
Speaking of successors, this 2004 track by British composer Max Richter pretty much showed the door to contemporary classical predecessors like “Spiegel Im Spiegel” and, before that, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” “Daylight” has been a somber soundtrack staple since first used by Will Ferrell’s Stranger than Fiction in 2006. After the track turned up in Shutter Island, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and elsewhere in the years that followed, Richtermania seemed to reach a peak in 2016 with its prominent placement on the soundtrack of Arrival. Instead, it just kicked it into high gear. Since then it could be heard on Castle Rock, The Good Doctor (two episodes), 9-1-1, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Perfect Day” by Lou Reed
Here’s a case of a song being used extremely well once, and then suffering dramatically diminishing returns. A dark reverie from Reed’s 1972 solo breakthrough Transformer, it unforgettably provided an ironic counterpoint to a harrowing OD scene in 1996’s Trainspotting. And, for a while, films and TV series let Trainspotting have it for itself. That started to change in the mid ’10s, however, when it made appearances in Gotham and Fear the Walking Dead, and it’s exploded in recent years, particularly on television, thanks to a rolling avalanche of appearances in Doom Patrol, See, Our Flag Means Death, The Stand, and Legends of Tomorrow. Can that many days really be perfect?
“Sabotage,” Beastie Boys
It’s nice when a classic track gets a second wind, but annoying when that wind just keeps blowing. “Sabotage” was used to great effect in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, the same year it turned up in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. It was used even more effectively in Steven Soderbergh’s Kimi, released earlier this year. But here’s a big, bright flashing warning sign that “Sabotage” is about to tip over into cliché: It’s featured in the trailer to Minions: The Rise of Gru. Could it belatedly become an early-’20s answer to such bygone soundtrack cliches as Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” and James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good”)? Let’s hope not.
“The Big Ship,” Brian Eno
This somber, swelling instrumental track from Eno’s classic 1975 album Another Green World is far from the most famous song to become a soundtrack cliché, but it’s been extremely in-demand of late. You can currently hear it in the eccentric nature documentary The Fire of Love, an appearance that arrives on the heels of placements in two 2021 docs: Val and Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. But its use this decade is a kind of second wave of resurgence following its appearances in The Lovely Bones, The End of the Tour, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl between 2010 and 2016. Stop before it’s too late: There are other Eno tracks that could do the emotional lifting!