Track of the Day: 'Hallelujah' by Jeff Buckley

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Gary in Saskatchewan keeps our cinema series alive with two dramatic scenes from The West Wing, one of which features one of the most iconic cover songs ever, Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” (so I filed this note under the cover song series instead). But first Gary goes with Dire Straits:

Hope you’re still getting submissions. I just wanted to plug another couple of possibilities from The West Wing that were standouts in terms of embedding a song within a scene. The first one is the use of “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits (for context, this scene immediately precedes that one):

The original track begins with the sounds of a stormy sea, which the scene editors combine with an on-screen storm and the political storm after the revelation of the presidential cover-up. Everyone knows that a battle is coming—“Some day you’ll return to // Your valleys and your farms // And you'll no longer burn // To be brothers in arms”—but for now, everyone arranges themselves in formation around the president.  And with perfect timing, Mark Knopfler’s lyrics end as the President steps up to the podium, and the guitar solo gets mixed in with the flashbulb sounds and dialogue and reaction shots of everyone waiting for the answer to the burning question.  

There are many reviewers who cite this as one of the very best episodes of the West Wing. Here’s Jeremy Grayson of Critically Touched talking about the use of the track:

The buildup of this episode all on its own paves the way for a bravura culmination, but the episode grants its last few minutes an even higher pedestal by scoring them to Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms.” I have mixed feelings about song endings in general – if not overused, they can provide a strong emotional close, but they always run the risk of coming off as heavy-handed. But “Two Cathedrals” soars with its soundtrack choice, a song that is simultaneously solemn and liberating, matched up perfectly with Bartlet’s walk to the press.

Given how well things worked out at the end of season two, it was only natural that the West Wing folks attempt to duplicate their feat at the end of season three.  There have been many covers of Leonard Cohen’s iconic song “Hallelujah”(I’m partial to k.d. lang’s myself), but Jeff Buckley’s is the one that seems to be the one most frequently used to accompany visuals:

Here again, timing is impeccable, with a distinct strum to coincide with the appearance of CJ in the audience, and Buckley’s vocals floating up as she is told the bad news. The song playing over CJ’s crying is powerful enough, but the real kicker happens when the song rises up again when Josh is told the news, stopping his argument with Amy dead in its tracks.

The only problem with drafting this note?  I can’t stop myself from pulling out my DVD sets of the seasons to watch the full episodes ;)

(Track of the Day archive here. Earlier archive here. Submit via hello@.)