The Very Model of a Modern Major Musical

The Very Model of a Modern Major Musical

(With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan)

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”―Victor Hugo

The first sounds that every human hears are the matching rhythms of their own heartbeat and their mother’s in the womb. This is our introduction to music. We immediately feel the power of music in terms of a range of emotions, and most importantly, a human connection. It may start with our mother’s heartbeat, but when we enter the brutal reality of the world, we hear the cascading rhythms of human voices, outside world noises … and, if we’re lucky … some form of musical notes. A lullaby sung by a family member, a Beatles song, some Dua Lipa perhaps.

We grow up with music. Our tastes may be formed at a young age, but they evolve, develop, and grow into something as we reach adulthood. It's been said far better, but music is a direct pipeline (apologies for the inadvertent plug) to the heart—and that doesn’t change as we age. At any moment, we might hear a song that triggers a memory of heartbreak, of joy, of triumph.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a song can be more powerful than ten thousand …

Some of us might experience the power of music through film or theatre at a young age. For me, there was the genuine thrill of hearing Leonard Bernstein’s score of West Side Story as it filled the auditorium at a local revival house. It’s almost impossible to feel nothing when a evocative score or song fills your ears. To clarify, I’m not generally a fan of Broadway musicals, but the powerful combination of the music and story—borrowed from Shakespeare, as well as Natalie Wood’s ethereal beauty—sent my emotions soaring at the tender age of ten. (To my great surprise, I felt a similar thrill when watching Steven Spielberg’s remake—a true gem that deserved a massive audience, and I suspect will have a very long life on home video.)

By itself, music has extraordinary power. Who hasn’t been moved by a song? One that sends a chill, a thrill, a tear coursing through your body? Film is similar. That thrill—whether it’s the “hero moment” (where the music swells along with visual accompaniment) to the emotional crux of a story where everything changes and our hearts swell along with the music. Combining the power of cinema and music creates a unique experience, unmatched by any other genre.

This past October, we had the chance to experience music in the grandeur of the movie theatre. No, I’m not talking about the behemoth that was Taylor Swift’s Eras concert film, but I referring to a little gem of a film entitled Flora and Son. It’s the fourth film in John Carney’s quartet of his particular take on the modern musical. To be fair, it merely uses the power of song as a way to connect people and heal us. Which is what music does at its best.

Musicals used to dominate the landscape of both stage and screen. In the 50s, it wasn’t surprising to see a song from a hit musical on the top of the charts. Even though we’re in an era where The Beatles can have a top ten hit 53 years after breaking up and Taylor Swift can have the same song chart twice (thanks to ‘Taylor’s version’), we’re unlikely to return to that world. (Although if Taylor Swift makes a proper musical, all bets are off.)

We’ve had occasional waves of successful musical films over the last few decades. Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Lala Land come to mind, but they’re few and far between. There were also the Disney animated musicals (and their live action remakes), but those feel as distant as the movie musicals of the 40s and 50s at this point.

While Eras has broken records around the world, the small Irish charmer helmed by former musician Carney was only given a limited release by Apple Films before being released on their AppleTV+ streaming service. I reached out to Apple Films for the reasons why a crowd-pleasing charmer was given a limited release, but received no response. It will be given a full theatrical release in Carney’s native Ireland in February, but that gives me little solace.

"Music occupies more areas of our brain than language does—humans are a musical species."—Oliver Sacks

I had the pleasure of seeing Flora at a sold-out screening in Santa Monica. Watching the sentimental, caustic, beautiful film move a crowd of over 400 people (swaying and smiling all the while) was an experience that sent my emotions soaring—especially at a particular moment towards the end of the film when the title characters communicate in song on stage in an emotional manner they could never do via dialogue.

Carney’s 2015 film was titled Can A Song Change Your Life? before TWC forced a title change to the generic Begin Again. (The middle letter in TWC is now far more tainted than the middle letter in KFC. We shan’t mention it again.). This title could be the name of all of Carney’s films. From Once to Sing Street to his latest film, the auteur’s films (and considering his singular voice and talent, that is an accurate description) are about the power of music to heal. To heal our souls; our relationships; our fractured families …

Set in Dublin, Flora and Son is a lovely, messy, perfectly imperfect film about the power of music that heals the relationship between the title characters. Flora (played by the spiky and vibrant Eve Hewson) attempts to connect with her son by gifting him an acoustic guitar (from the bin), but after he rejects it, she winds up learning to play through Jeff, an online guitar teacher based in L.A., beautifully essayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (in his best role since 500 Days of Summer).

I spoke with Gary Clark, the composer and co-songwriter on Carney’s last two films as well as the Amazon Prime series, Modern Love. While he doesn’t view Carney’s films necessarily as musicals, he does offer this nice summation on the marriage of film and song.

Here are Gary’s takes on the films as well as Carney’s place in the musical film world. (Note: Gary is a ridiculously humble and good-natured Scotsman with a fascinating career as singer/songwriter/composer, who deserves his own feature-length profile.)

Gary Clark: They are films about people making connections through the power of music, but the characters always have a legitimate reason to sing and the audience gets to see and share in the process. Films about bands and music are tricky, and so many seem to fall into music business tropes or clichés. I think John has a very unique and honest perspective and has the experience as a musician to back that up. His films are not about success or people making it. They are about the beauty in the act of making music itself and what music means to people in their very real and ordinary lives.

Scott Sanford Tobis: Regarding Carney’s take on the modern musical, do you feel that it can be utilized by other filmmakers, or is it unique to him? In his own way, Carney is an auteur. No one makes movies in the same manner … but he uses a similar process—letting the songs guide the emotions of the characters, and therefore the audience.

Gary: When it’s good, film amplifies the song, and the song amplifies the film. It’s a marriage made in heaven, and there is no greater joy than watching that realized on a big screen. Making film is a far more complex process than making music and relies on a massive pool of talent and support, so it really is a privilege and a thrill every time I get to participate in that.

Scott: As you were a singer/songwriter before falling into film, what is the difference between being a singer/songwriter as well as writing for various artists.

Gary: It’s really the collaborative process. In Danny Wilson (Note: The Scottish band that gave us the glorious "Mary’s Prayer"), I wrote alone and made the decisions about which songs made the final record. In film, the songs tend to be collaborations, even when not. They don’t make the cut unless they pass muster with the director. That’s not dissimilar to writing and producing for other artists though, so it’s something I’ve had plenty of time to acclimatize to.

Scott: Can you discuss the specific collaborative process on Flora and Son?

Gary: While we have developed a kind of rhythm, we don’t have one set way of doing things. It’s very song or score dependent. John starts his ideas in GarageBand, which I then translate into Pro Tools and develop from there bouncing everything off of John as I go. Other times, he’ll identify a spot in the script and just ask me to write something from scratch myself. Examples of that are "Drive it Like You Stole it" in Sing Street, "Circus" from Modern Love, and "Talking to You" from Flora and Son. Other times, John sends me his demo, and I might say: “This is written, John. It doesn’t need anything.” Other times, when we have the luxury of being in a studio together, we’ll get round a piano with guitars and write in the room. We did that for "Bipolar Girl" which Anne Hathaway performed in Modern Love. Uniquely on Flora, we wrote two of the songs with actors, Joe and Eve, in the studio. So, it’s really a case of whatever works in the moment.

Scott: How do you navigate writing songs that run the gamut from purposely cheesy to earnest with an immediate and wonderful hook? Even the best songs in Flora and Son need to seem as if they were written by people relatively new to the music world. But they have an immediacy, a joy, and purity that is unique. That's a tough thing to capture, and you both have captured that twice.

Gary: I have to give John a lot of credit here. He has one eye on it as a songwriter and another as a filmmaker and storyteller. Finding that balance can be a journey, more often than not, it’s an exploration of getting the lyrical tone just right for the characters. Contrastingly, some (songs) can come quite quickly when one of us comes up with a good idea, and we don’t overthink it. I will say from my own perspective that I’ve had to learn to make what’s right for the film versus overwriting the most “perfect” song.

Scott: Are you ever involved in the writing process with John, as sometimes the lyrics are drawn directly from dialogue we’re heard earlier in the film?

Gary: Whereas songs are definitely inspired by the script, and quite often John’s scripts hold a lot of information about what the songs need to communicate, there are times when the reverse happens, and he will update a script after we’ve written a song to inject references to the lyric into the story. That two-way street really helps weave characters, stories, and songs together. I remember, in Sing Street for example, we’d written the song “Girls” with the chorus “All the complicated boys know that the girls are so complicated,” and John took that idea and put it into something that an art teacher says to (the lead character) in school, which in turn gives him the idea to write the song. It’s a subtle thing, but it makes a big difference when the audience are privy to the character’s inspiration.

Mr. Clark had much more to offer, but as this is a piece about the marriage of music and film, I’ll let the poor man go. He’s jet lagged from the flight from Scotland, and I’ve already bent his ear far too much.

I didn’t see the Taylor Swift film, but from what I’ve heard from friends, the audience members treated it like they were at an actual concert, so clearly there was also an emotional connection.

The power of music can be extraordinary.

However, combining story, visuals, and music can make for truly transcendent art—especially as experienced in a cathedral-like setting of a movie palace. That’s why films like Flora and Son need to be seen and heard in the theatre. If we’re lucky, artists like John Carney will continue to make their version of musical films into the foreseeable future and studios will be wise enough to release these films into movie theatres—where the magic of the communal viewing will elevate the experience—which is surely the intention of all music-based movies.

Watching a movie in a room full of people is a special thing. Most films are far better in a crowded theatre. That thrill—whether it be from a dirty joke, a romantic moment, or the joy of a beautiful song—is elevated when one is sitting in a theatre with of hundreds of your fellow humans. (The same ones who have been listening to music in all forms since that moment in their mother’s womb.) That experience is something you won’t get at home, no matter how glorious your home theatre setup may be.

Another thing that won’t happen at home is what I experienced when I went to see Flora and Son. After the credits rolled, the audience was treated to a Q&A and mini-concert by John Carney and Gary Clark. The crowd sang along with the songs they had just heard and were treated to extended version of “Meet in the Middle,” a duet between Flora and Jeff that is one of the two (exceedingly worthy) songs from the film submitted for Academy Award consideration.

I certainly can’t promise that the reader will experience anything like the special treat the sell out crowd was treated to that night, but you never know. Stranger things have happened.

And that’s part of the magic of the musical film. The unexpected.

*Feature Photo: Flora (Eve Hewson) from Flora and Son (Apple TV+)

Scott Sanford Tobis is a screenwriter, cookbook author, and award nominated playwright. When not writing for film and television, he enjoys being antisocial. If you see him in public, avert your eyes.
More posts by Scott Sanford Tobis.
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