Movies can bring unexpected fame to unusual songs, making contemporary standards out of tunes too forceful for bland, timid commercial radio stations to ever play.
"O Brother, Where Art Thou's" use of newly recorded versions of mountain-music and traditional-folk tunes found a public hungry for the haunted sounds of "old, weird America," to use writer Greil Marcus' term, in an age of processed teen-pop and redundant rap-metal rock. The soundtrack, released late last year, became the nation's top-selling country album.
And it made a pop star of sorts out of the septuagenarian mountain-music veteran Ralph Stanley, whose chilling and mournful version of O Death was its highlight.
But this year has a surprise perhaps even greater - the turning of Leonard Cohen's deeply spiritual and sexually frank song Hallelujah into a youth- and family-friendly musical highlight of "Shrek."
At times dark and melancholy, yet also melodically and emotionally uplifting, Hallelujah, with its biblical references, is not a typical pop song. It's also on "Shrek's" best-selling soundtrack, nestling alongside such bouncy, snappy confections as Smash Mouth's All Star and Baha Men's Best Years of Our Lives.
Since Cohen first recorded Hallelujah in 1984, it has slowly become a favorite of both his fans and other singers such as Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan, who have recorded or performed it in concert. But it was never anything close to a hit, nor a beneficiary of significant radio play. It just didn't seem to be connected to the youth-oriented nature of pop culture.
"Shrek," a computer-animated "fractured fairy tale" starring a misunderstood green ogre with bugle-shaped ears and his talking-donkey pal, has changed that. The Shrek CD, containing a version of Cohen's composition by the young balladeer Rufus Wainwright, has sold in excess of 500,000 copies so far.
The movie, which features a sonorous and achingly yearning version of the song by veteran singer John Cale, has grossed $267.2 million. Released on video and DVD on Oct. 30, Shrek immediately became the fastest-selling DVD ever - 2.5 million copies in its first week, according to Zap2it.com. And 4.5 million copies of the video were sold in that same time, too.
In the film, Hallelujah accompanies the movie's key scene, emotionally. The ogre Shrek has mistakenly concluded that Princess Fiona, with whom he is smitten, finds him ugly. So he abandons her and also gruffly abandons his loyal talking donkey. So she reluctantly decides to marry the vain Lord Farquaad, whom she dislikes.
Using cross-cutting to create parallel story construction as the (condensed) Cale version plays, directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson show Shrek moping in his barren and primitive shack while a regretful Princess Fiona is fitted with her wedding gown. And the lonely donkey rests by a brook, where he meets a forlorn dragon. The song begins:
"I heard there was a secret chord That David played, and it pleased the Lord But you don't really care for music, do you? It goes like this The fourth, the fifth The minor fall, the major lift The baffled king composing Hallelujah."
"The animators and filmmakers loved the song so much that they adapted that scene to fit it," said Marylata E. Jacob, DreamWorks Pictures' music supervisor, in a telephone interview. "We always knew we had to have a scene like that."
Shrek was designed to appeal to the whole family, not just for small children. But, according to Jacob, she didn't fear Hallelujah would be too difficult for kids. "I think people underestimate how smart children are," she said. "A lot of kids like 'All Star' because it's so familiar, others like 'Hallelujah' because it's so sophisticated."
Cohen, 67, is a Canadian poet who began composing and recording his own songs in the late-1960s.Though he has a droll sense of humor, his growly and rumblingly low voice combined with his minor-key melodies and sometimes-despairing view of world affairs and romantic intimacy have made him an acquired taste. In an online chat with fans after the release of his new Ten New Songs, Cohen said many have regarded him "as a morbid old depressive drone peddling suicide notes."
Still, some of his songs have become contemporary standards when recorded by others - Suzanne by Judy Collins, Bird on a Wire by Joe Cocker, Everybody Knows by Concrete Blonde. He is also knowledgeable and interested in several religions, having been raised Jewish in Catholic Montreal and later becoming a disciple of Zen Buddhism.
Hallelujah reflects those religious interests, as well as his ability to combine the sacred with the mysteriously erotic. He works at a painstakingly slow pace, taking years between albums. Even after recording Hallelujah in 1984, he continued to rework it. By 1988, when he recorded a live version for the Austin City Limits show (it appears on 1994's Cohen Live), new verses had replaced old to give the song an increased secular meaning.
But the final verse remained:
"I did my best; it wasn't much I couldn't feel, so I learned to touch I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you And even though it all went wrong I'll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips (tongue) but Hallelujah!"
Cohen's record company declined an interview request for this story. But his comments on Hallelujah can be found at websites. At a 1985 Warsaw concert, he said this: "I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgment that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect. And it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song."
The song began taking on a life apart from Cohen's recordings when Dylan added it to a few live shows in the late 1980s, much to Cohen's pleasure. Then Cale, a singer-songwriter in his own right and original member of the Velvet Underground, recorded his stand-out version for a 1991 Cohen tribute album, I'm Your Fan. Cale's version also was used on the soundtrack of Julian Schnabel's 1996 film "Basquait."
On another Cohen tribute album, 1995's Tower of Song, Bono recorded a raplike Hallelujah. And this year, Canadian cabaret singer Patricia O'Callaghan recorded it for her album Real Emotional Girl. When she sang it before former President Clinton at a Toronto benefit, and he joined her onstage afterward for photos, it made headlines.
But perhaps the key version in furthering the song's "underground classic" status occurred in 1994, when Jeff Buckley recorded it for his debut full-length album, "Grace." His ethereal yet solemn rendition, sung in a voice that was truly hymnlike, has been called "moody, solitary, and sweet" by critics. It came to be identified with Buckley, who subsequently drowned at age 30.
Although his short career rendered him more a cult figure - and the son of a cult figure, the late singer-songwriter Tim Buckley - than a star, his version keeps attracting attention and winning fans. Entertainment Weekly has noted that, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, VH-1 played it repeatedly. Wainwright - himself the son of two singer-songwriters, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle - now has recorded the best-selling version. His is lovely and ruminative with a strong piano accompaniment.
"It's such an easy song to sing in that the melody is quite simple and straightforward," Wainwright said in a telephone interview. "The thing with that song and Leonard in general is the music never pummels the words. The melody is almost liturgical and conjures up religious feelings. When you listen to one of his songs, it's purifying."
For Shrek's help in making this song a recognizable contemporary standard, one can only say, Hallelujah!
By Steven Rosen
Steven Rosen's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This story was first published in the Denver Post on Nov. 18, 2001. It has not been updated, except for adding the "Basquiat" information. Hearing k.d. lang's version at the Vancouver Olympics -- as well as seeing Cohen twice on tour last year -- made me believe it is still relevant.)