In 1984 — the same year that Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Madonna ruled the pop charts with “Born in the USA,” “Purple Rain” and “Like a Virgin,” respectively — there was another classic that never saw the light of day.
Leonard Cohen’s towering tune “Hallelujah” was rejected — along with the rest of his “Various Positions” album — by then-CBS Records head Walter Yetnikoff. “He said, ‘Leonard, we know you’re great, but we don’t know if you’re any good,’ ” recalls the late singer-songwriter in the new documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song ,” which opens in theaters Friday.
But that would turn out to be only a “minor fall” in the song’s long ascent to the pantheon of iconic tunes. A triumph of both perseverance and undeniable brilliance, it was a determined, decades-spanning journey that took “Hallelujah” from John Cale and Jeff Buckley covers to “Shrek” and “American Idol” ubiquity.
“It took so many years to get ready, like a great bottle of wine, that when it finally hit, it was unstoppable,” John Lissauer — who produced Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah” — told The Post.
Today, it’s a song that adds grace, grandeur and gravitas to any momentous occasion. “It’s a song that people use at funerals and weddings, and they use it when their baby is born,” said Alan Light, whose newly updated book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, & the Unlikely Ascent of ‘ Hallelujah’ ” inspired the current documentary.
Cohen had been working on writing “Hallelujah” for years — going through hundreds of verses in notebook after notebook — when he first played it for Lissauer in 1983. “It was completely different than we know it now,” he said. “He was strumming it on this little nylon [string] guitar. So we sat at the piano, and I started playing it like gospel.”
Although the lyrics were shrouded in mystery, leaving the meaning open to interpretation, Lissauer knew right away that “Hallelujah” was something special: “I said, ‘This is really an important song. This could be ridiculously huge. This could touch everyone.’ It turned out it was exactly what we expected — just 20 years too early.”
After Columbia Records, a division of CBS, rejected “Various Positions” — and its future classic “Hallelujah” — the album eventually received an unheralded US release on an independent label in 1985. Meanwhile, Cohen began trying out different versions of the “Hallelujah ” lyrics in his performances, taking the song from its more spiritual origins into more secular, sensual territory.
Cohen got “a wonderful affirmation” — as he describes in the documentary — when Bob Dylan discovered “Hallelujah” and covered it on tour in 1988. “It’s all the more remarkable that the one guy who saw something interesting in that song at the time is Bob Dylan,” said Light. “I mean, that’s why he’s Bob Dylan.”
Then Velvet Underground co-founder Cale covered “Hallelujah” on the 1991 tribute album “I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.” In fact, it was Cale who edited multiple versions of the lyrics into the standard rendition that we know today. And it was Cale’s remake that was first heard by the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, inspiring him to record “Hallelujah” on his 1994 debut album “Grace.”
After Buckley’s drowning death at 30 in 1997, his more angelic, accessible take on “Hallelujah” became, to many, the definitive version. “I think there’s an intimacy to it,” said Light. “It feels like Jeff is whispering in your ear. And he’s much younger. Leonard recorded this song when he was 50 years old.”
But “Hallelujah” was destined for even bigger things when it was picked for a key emotional scene in the 2001 animated blockbuster “Shrek.” In the documentary, “Shrek” co-director Vicky Jenson explains how she edited out “the naughty bits” of the lyrics while trimming down the song for the movie. And although it’s Cale’s version of the song that Shrek is singing in the movie, Rufus Wainwright’s rendition is featured on the hit soundtrack.
After “Shrek” made “Hallelujah” a household tune that transcended generations, the song went on to become a popular pick on TV singing competitions such as “American Idol,” “The Voice” and “The X Factor.” In fact, after Alexandra Burke won Britain’s “The X Factor” singing “Hallelujah” in the 2008 finale, her version of the song went No. 1 in the UK.
As “Hallelujah” became the kind of timeless tune that will live forever, Cohen “was tickled about it,” said Lissauer. Indeed, just days after Cohen’s death and Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, the song captured the culture when it was performed by Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton in the cold opening of “Saturday Night Live.”
“It was that song that you could turn to and get the feeling they were looking for,” said Light.