In Pirate Radio, Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne Signals – Well, Breaking Up With A Girl Named Marianne


Note: Originally posted Apr 3, 2011 at, a predecessor of Cohencentric

So Long, Marianne Joins Hallelujah As Movie Signifier

There has been much written about the use of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in movies and TV shows as a signifier of meaningfulness1 rather than as music that fits into and contributes to the sense of the scene.2 That tactic, however, exudes polished sophistication and complex subtlety compared to the heavy-handed, over-simplified pairing of Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne in the soundtrack of the 2009 movie, Pirate Radio (original title: The Boat That Rocked).

The Painfully Obvious Becomes Just Painful

Directed and written by Richard Curtis,3 Pirate Radio is accurately described in this paragraph from A sentimental journey that sails into Davy Jones’s locker by Liam Lacey (Globe Mail, Nov. 12, 2009):

This fictionalized account one of the radio ships which beamed rock music into British homes in the mid-sixties has a wealth of historical material to draw on and a strong ensemble cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh. But Curtis’s script is essentially an American frat-boy comedy with a series of vignettes showing games and ribaldry, virginity to be lost and pompous squares to offend. Re-edited and retitled (formerly The Boat that Rocked ) from its English release, the story, following the model of Almost Famous, centres around the arrival of a teenager, Carl (Tom Sturrridge, pale and delicate in the Robert Pattinson mode), who has been sent to spend time on the Radio Rock boat, managed by his godfather Quentin (Nighy).

Consider this post a warning that other Cohen songs, in this case, So Long, Marianne, may suffer Hallelujah’s fate as screenwriter’s preformed scripting tool.

Forcing The Fit Between Video And Soundtrack

Here’s how creating a soundtrack and integrating the sound and the visual elements is accomplished in big-time movie making:

During the process of writing the film, he [Curtis] came up with a playlist of about 300 songs, with 15 of them written into the script.

“Obviously, the names of the girls – I only named one Elenore, so I could play `Elenore’ (by the Turtles) and one Marianne, so I could play `So Long, Marianne’ (by Leonard Cohen) when she leaves.”4

So, a significant scene from Pirate Radio about a girl named Marianne breaking up with the film’s central character, the teenage Carl, is marked by Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne.

See, the girl in the breakup is named “Marianne” and the song is about saying so long to a girl named “Marianne.”  Get it?

I mean, the song and the girl are both named Marianne – what are the chances?

Well, if you get to name the movie’s characters, chances are good.

On the other hand, at no point does Carl utter the phrase “So Long, Marianne” to his ex-girl friend, Marianne.

As Curtis himself points out in Nautical Rock: Pirate Radio Takes Pop to the High Seas,

That’s my favorite scene in the movie because I didn’t write it—it’s like a gift to me, … I might even say that Leonard Cohen is the funniest man I’ve ever seen in concert, which is odd, because his music is so miserable. He’s just full of really good jokes. [emphasis mine]


So Long, Marianne



  1. I would prefer to say that it is used to convey significance rather than meaningfulness but “a signifier of significance” just doesn’t scan []
  2. The seminal paper articulating this concept is It Doesn’t Matter Which You Heard: The Curious Cultural Journey of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by Michael Barthel, which was presented at the 2007 Pop Conference at Experience Music Project. []
  3. Richard Curtis is also the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually. []
  4. On air with ‘Pirate Radio By Rob Lowman, Pasadena Star-News: Nov 8, 2009 []