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 songwriters face 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.