Composer Gary Clark and director John Carney working on the music for “Flora and Son,” premiering September 29, 2023 on Apple TV+.

Flora and Son’s John Carney on Using a Joni Mitchell Classic

There’s a scene in the Apple movie Flora and Son that should put a lump in the throat of any proud Canadian watching it.

Irish single mom Flora (Eve Hewson) has been taking online guitar lessons from a laid-back Californian teacher (Joseph Gordon Levitt), and progressing nicely. At the end of one of their meetings, he seems to come to a decision that she’s ready for something more.

“I’m going to give you some homework,” he says. “There’s a song I want you to listen to. I’ll send you a link. Give it a listen.”

That night, she starts the YouTube link and almost immediately gets up from the table to clear the dishes. But through the speakers, she can hear the plaintive voice of a young Joni Mitchell singing Both Sides Now from a “Live at the BBC” recording made more than 50 years ago.

At first, Flora is all but ignoring it. Then it makes her pause, go still, and finally return to the computer to watch the tiny figure on the screen. But by the time the song is over, she’s crying. She can’t believe she’s crying, but she is.

I had a chance to ask John Carney, writer/director of Flora and Son, about his choice of this one song, this particular performance, when he came to Toronto for the Canadian premiere of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Carney is a former bassist with the Irish rock band The Frames, and the director of such musical dramas as Once, Begin Again and Sing Street. Clearly, some thought went into this bit of Canadiana.

“Well, that’s an interesting question,” he begins. He wanted a song that was musical perfection, but without ego. That meant looking back in time a ways. “There’s a real thing that we lost a little bit, about letting the song take over, and stepping back as the performer, and letting the song come through you,” he says.

But he also wanted to capture the idea of hearing something amazing for the first time.

“I wanted to sort of get inside the idea of: What would it be like for me, now, at my age, for somebody to play a song like that for the first time?” (He’s GenX, born in ’72.) “Like Isn’t She Lovely? Like Stevie Wonder, or a Bill Withers song, or a Joni Mitchell song, or a John Martin song?

“What must that be like, as an adult?” Carney wonders. “To hear that for the first time, you know, now that you’ve had somebody die in your life, and you’ve seen what life is really like, and you’re not a kid anymore, and you know how awful things can be. What would that be like?”

It took some searching.

“We spent a lot of time figuring out what was the right thing to move that character of Flora to a point where she goes, ‘OK, now I see. I thought music was to get me to work on the bus, or to work out to, or to go to a nightclub to.’ So that was the perfect clip for me. Where there was a female singer, singing a song that she had written. And just going, ‘I’m stepping back from this song. I just kind of want you to hear the song.’”

Hoping for more Mitchell, I ask Carney if he’s got a favourite song himself.

“In the world? I don’t think I have a favourite. I mean, it’s definitely going to be Steely Dan. But which of the Steely Dan songs would be my favourite Steely Dan song? Would it be Peg? Because I think you could study that song, you could bring it onto a desert island and you could listen to it an awful lot, and decipher it. So anything by Steely Dan. I’m a ‘70s guy. Yeah.”

Flora and Son is available to stream now on Apple TV+.

Read Victor Stiff’s review from TIFF 2023.