Why John Carney Needed to Write ‘Good, Not Great’ Music for ‘Flora and Son’

TheWrap magazine: “It can’t be that she suddenly starts singing like Beyoncé and he starts writing Ed Sheeran songs,” Carney says

Eve Hewson Flora and Son
Eve Hewson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "Flora and Son" (Credit: Apple TV+)

Songs are key to the movies made by Irish musician-turned-director John Carney, but the path to those songs was clearer in his previous films “Once” (an Oscar winner for “Falling Slowly”), “Begin Again” (a nominee for “Lost Stars”) and “Sing Street” than it was for “Flora and Son,” which stars Eve Hewson as a young mother who uses music to connect with her sullen teenage kid.

“There’s a point where you have to go, what’s the sound of this film?” Carney said. “’Once’ was folksy and acoustic. ‘Sing Street’ was ’80s pop. But I didn’t know what this one was. I knew what Flora sounds like when she’s talking and I knew what the movie would look like, but I had no idea what music they were creating.”

To figure that out, Carney and co-writer Gary Clark (former leader of the Scottish band Danny Wilson, which had a big hit with “Mary’s Prayer” in 1988) turned to the script and the characters — particularly for “Meet in the Middle,” the song that forges a connection between Flora and Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an online guitar teacher from Los Angeles; and “High Life,” which serves as the film’s climax.

That latter song, rousing and defiant, is meant to be a collaboration between Flora, Jeff and Flora’s son, Max (Orén Kinlan). “It had to be plausible,” Carney said. “She’s a girl who’s been learning guitar for a couple of months and probably knows 10 chords. He’s a slightly washed-up singer-songwriter, so he’s not writing Bruce Springsteen songs — they’re probably good, not great. The kid is picking around with GarageBand on his laptop, and maybe he’s trying to rap, God bless him. And out of that weird mix, we created the music.” 

“High Life,” Gary Clark added, was “a hard one” to nail. “We got the chorus reasonably early on,” he said. “And then it was about trying to get the verses to feel true to the characters. Right up to the end, we were tweaking it.”

For “Meet in the Middle,” Carney’s model was the classic “Fairytale of New York,” on which the late Irish singer Kirsty MacColl sang with the Pogues. “It’s a kind of dialogue where each of the characters has their own voice inside the song,” said Clark. “Getting it right was such a fine balance.”

Because they knew their characters so well, Hewson and Gordon-Levitt were brought into the songwriting process on a Saturday during shooting. “We had to stick to the rules,” Carney said of the movie’s songs. “It can’t be that she suddenly starts singing like Beyoncé and he starts writing Ed Sheeran songs. We wanted it to be really, really nice, but it always had to be plausible.

“I don’t want to make movies about going from rags to riches and getting an award and everybody loves you. That’s been done so many times, and there are so many more interesting stories to tell about how music is important in so many different ways.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap magazine. Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

Sandra Huller Race Begins 2023
Sandra Huller shot for TheWrap by Jeff Vespa

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