Flora and Son writer-director John Carney and his songwriting partner Gary Clark like telling stories of “scrappy amateurs thinking maybe I could get into music industry” — because they’ve both been there.
Flora and Son stars the magnetic Eve Hewson as Flora, an Irish single mom who brings home a busted guitar for her teenage son Max (Orén Kinlan) and ends up learning to play it herself with help from hunky internet guitar tutor Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who lives far away in Los Angeles. Along the way, many gorgeous songs are played, like the show-stopping “Meet in the Middle” and “High Life,” a very likely Oscar contender.
But so are some so-so songs, like “Dublin 07,” a hip-hoppy number that Max makes on his laptop. (“You need a better title,” says his mum, before singing him a hook.) One of the joys of a John Carney movie is watching his characters evolve from fledgling songwriters into musicians who are kind of crazy good.
John Carney and Gary Clark on Songwriting
So how do Carney, who is Irish, and Clark, who is Scottish, figure out how to write the so-so early songs?
“Well, basically, if I’m being honest, he’ll do the great songs,” Carney says of Clark in the latest MovieMaker podcast. “It’s a good partnership for these movies, because I’m a hobbyist. He’s a professional. So what will frequently happen is I’ll bring forward an idea that… has moments of like Oh, yeah…? And then Gary nails them and kind of finishes them and puts the little thing flourishes in that sort of make them acceptable.
“And that works because we’re writing about characters who aren’t, you know, U2 or Burt Bacharach or finished great songwriters or bands — we’re writing about scrappy amateurs thinking maybe I could get into music industry because it’s kind of what we both are. We both were sort of autodidacts, non-trained, thinking maybe I could make it in the music industry if I got a guitar, maybe. That story just continues to obsess us because it’s the story we we lived.”
Case in point: “Riddle of the Model,” a Duran Duranesque song from the 1980s-set Sing Street, is built from a riff Carney wrote as a kid. Clark expanded on it and made it great.
“We started jamming on John’s riff, and the musicians were too good,” recalls Clark. “I had to go, ‘No, you’re supposed to sound like you’re 14 years old.'”
Modesty aside, Carney and Clark both very much know what they’re doing: Carney was the bassist for Irish band The Frames and directed some of their videos before turning to film. 2007’s Once, starring his Frames bandmate Glen Hansard, won the Oscar for Best Original Song for the lush, gorgeous “Falling Slowly,” sung in the film by Hansard and Markéta Irglová.
Clark, meanwhile, was known for his work in the bands Danny Wilson, King L and Transister before he worked alongside artists including Natalie Imbruglia, Demi Lovato and Liz Phair — and of course John Carney.
You can listen to our interview with Carney and Clark on Apple or right here:
We talk mostly about the state of music — from sensitive male songwriters to what Carney calls “derivative nostalgia,” and also about casting Hewson, whose dad, Bono, was once a fledgling musician himself. (U2 started as a high school band.)
Flora and Son Wants You to Write a Song
But what Carney and Clark focus on the most is the hope that their movies will not portray scrappy music, but inspire it.
“We’re telling stories about characters who are not the best musicians in the world. We’re telling different musical stories about people learning music, about people teaching music, about people failing in music, about people not just succeeding and winning a bunch of Grammys. That story is great, but we’ve seen that a million times,” says Carney.
“My whole thing with this film is to look at music, to try and write good and interesting songs that help the character develop, but to do that in a plausible way that encourages people who see the movie to pick up the guitar or play music, go on GarageBand, learn how to use Pro Tools. Get into music.
“The great thing about pop and rock music is you don’t have to be a genius virtuoso violinist or cellist. By its very definition, rock and pop music is the democratic leveler of of all of these things.”
Flora and Son is now streaming Apple TV+.
Main image: Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Flora and Son.