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HALLELUJAH: LEONARD COHEN, A JOURNEY, A SONG: 3 ½ STARS. “a fascinating character.”

“Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen’s haunting hymn of desire, spirituality and the mystery of life, took seven years to write. Begun when Jimmy Carter was president, it wasn’t released until Ronald Reagan was in his second term.

How does that compare to other songwriters? In a famous story, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are having lunch. “I really like ‘Hallelujah,’” Dylan said. “How long did it take you to write that?”

“Seven years,” came the reply.

Returning the compliment, Cohen said, “I really like ‘I and I,’” a tune from Dylan’s album “Infidels” album. “How long did it take you to write that?”

“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.

“I always thought I sweated over this stuff,” Cohen says in “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song,” a new documentary now playing in theatres, “but I had no idea what sweating over this stuff meant until I found myself in a shabby hotel room trying to finish ‘Hallelujah’ and not being able to finish it.”

The new documentary expands beyond the seven years of Cohen’s endless scribbling of lyrics, to essay what he calls, “my curious career and marginal presence on the edges of the music scene.”

Directed and edited by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, the film stitches together new interviews with old friends of the singer, archival footage, musical performances and photographs. It paints a portrait of a spiritual seeker, a poet on an endless hunt for meaning through career ups and downs.

One of the downs was the release of “Various Positions,” the album that contained the original version of “Hallelujah.” Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but at the time the album was rejected by

Walter Yetnikoff, the head of Columbia. Refusing to release it domestically, Yetnikoff gave Cohen a show biz kiss-off. “Leonard, we know you’re great. But we don’t know if you’re any good.”

The album and the song languished, ignored and virtually unheard, until John Cale revived the tune for a tribute album called “I’m Your Fan.” Revamping the arrangement and incorporating several of Cohen’s unused verses, the song finally caught the ear of the public, including folk-rock singer Jeff Buckley. His version (based on Cale’s interpretation) would go on to be named one of Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and is likely the best known in a field that includes covers by everyone from Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang to Pentatonix and Willie Nelson. “It’s a great song,” said Buckley. “I wish I had written it.”

Strangely enough, it was a sequence in the Mike Myers animated film “Shrek,” featuring Cale’s arrangement, that gave tune a whole new energy for a younger audience. Eventually, the “cleaned-up” “Shrek” version would become an “American Idol” and “X-Factor” talent show staple, and re-enter the charts several times. At one point it took the top two spots on the British charts at the same time, while Cohen’s 1984 was in the Top 40, a fact that tickled Cohen. “It was an ironic sidebar because the record that it came from wasn’t considered good enough for the American market,” he says in the film. “There is a certain sense of revenge that rose in my heart.”

Fans of Cohen may not learn too much they don’t already know in “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song.” But, from music to meditation, poetry to prayer, he remains, even in the broadest of biographical strokes, a fascinating character.

As for the song? Cohen says he’s happy for its success but, “I think people should stop singing it for a little while.”

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