The revered record producer Rick Rubin once asked me if I was ready for a change. My band Thursday was coming off our third album, “War All the Time.” We had just cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard album chart by producing anthems for the very same post-hardcore genre that we had helped to shape, but Rubin was clear: The creative clock was already ticking. At a certain point, staying the same meant fading away.
With “Flora and Son” (streaming on Apple TV+), the writer-director John Carney arrives at a similar question. His scrappy debut, “Once” (2007), had been an unexpected sleeper hit: a no-budget, boy-loses-girl story familiar to every musician who’s ever picked up a guitar to try to win someone back. His second, “Begin Again” (2014), was a disappointing sophomore slump at the hands of the Hollywood movie machine, a situation that songwritersface at the hands of the major label machine. Think U2’s “October” or Bad Religion’s “Into the Unknown.” Where “Once” trusted the audience, “Begin Again” spoke every subtext aloud. Was the success of “Once” beginner’s luck or simply sparks cast off by one of its leads, Glen Hansard,Carney’s longtime bandmate in the Frames?
A critical success, “Sing Street” (2016) answered one question by posing another: yes, Carney could successfully make movies about lovelorn boys with guitars, but was that all he was capable of? Would his next film be a total reinvention, or would the song remain the same? When Rick Rubin posed that similar question to me, I told him that I wanted our next record to be “less real and more true.” Indeed, much to the dismay of our audience, we abandoned our own realism and shot to the moon with “A City by the Light Divided,” produced by Dave Fridmann.
Carney, for his part, wisely chooses to edit weakness and lean into strength with “Flora and Son,” delivering characters both real and true. Each has their own music motivations. Ian (Jack Reynor), Flora’s arrogant ex, sees musical stardom as a means to put his own interests above everyone around him. Even though his own quest for fame has been stunted, his faith is as bright as the image in the mirror. Flora’s son, Max (played by the relative newcomer Oren Kinlan), is a quick study. Watching more popular classmates get the attention of his crush through their YouTube rap videos, Max teaches himself GarageBand. Carney knows that we start on our own musical paths for external reasons — get the girl, make the money, tell the ex to shove it — but he also understands that the ones who stay with music must eventually find its home within our souls. Flora’s guitar teacher, Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), has internalized music as a sacred spiritual path, and Gordon-Levitt fills him with both the generosity of a devotee and the quiet pretension of a prematurely enlightened monk.
Having produced several bands’ first albums, I hear enough of my own voice in Gordon-Levitt’s well, actuallys to want to pick up the phone and apologize for all the bad advice I’ve ever given (like telling My Chemical Romance that its breakout single, “I’m Not Okay,” was too pop). Still, Jeff is likable enough and provides contrast with Ian. Both men see themselves as has-beens, but Gordon-Levitt gives Jeff a hint of humility and a willingness to listen that separates him from Ian’s showy obstinance, suggesting that maybe we only become failed musicians once we stop learning to grow.
Carney, too, has been willing to grow. After drawing fire for the lack of three-dimensional female characters in his movies (even when they are the leads), Eve Hewson’s Flora is a character for the ages. Within her first 10 minutes onscreen, she forgets her son’s birthday, hits on another woman’s boyfriend and alienates the one sympathetic friend in her orbit. She’s petty, selfish and entirely magnetic. Being the daughter of U2’s Bono — a heritage from which she takes none of the musicality and 110 percent of the rock star strut — Hewson is in the perfect position to point out musicians’ many absurdities, an eye roll at a time. I imagine she’s had good practice.So how does a cynical character like Flora find herself putting faith in music? For the most fundamental reason: What else does she have to believe in?
Neither wholly good or bad, Flora is something better. She’s interesting, far too interesting to be stuck in a film whose whole plot hinges on the premise that an acoustic guitar found in a dumpster could change the lives of both a mother and child. So it’s a giant relief, at least, to watch Max dismiss the guitar out of hand. Later Flora, in a bout of drunken curiosity, scours YouTube to try to learn the instrument herself.
Pitch is not a native language and the learning curve can be steep. I was worried that Carney and his songwriting partner, Gary Clark, would aim their songs at the wide open Irish sky as they did with “Sing Street,” but for Flora, they keep the songs as small as the escape key on her laptop. I never get the sense that Flora, a single mother with a bad attitude and a washed-up guitar teacher, is about to accidentally write “Hey Jude.” Instead, in a beautiful turn, Jeff shows an unimpressed Flora his own songs and she gives an unvarnished critique: The chorus is wrong, she tells him, and suggests alternate notes, better phrasing.
Carney taps into a truth that most songwriters never pay heed to: Learn too much about music and you forget where the magic is. It’s in the listening, after all, not the playing; the singing of the chorus, not the turn of phrase on the notebook page. It’s easy to forget that a professional is one who does something for money, while an amateur is one who does that same thing for love. Flora never rises above amateur status as a singer, a mother, or even a friend. For all its fairy-tale golden guitar premise, “Flora and Son” delivers a message that’s much closer to the ground: We should all be so lucky as to remain amateurs in our own lives.