Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice had at least three objectives in mind when they agreed to write original tunes for the film Song One:
1. Write songs to be performed onscreen by “James Forester,” a reclusive singer-songwriter with a cult-classic album to his credit, as well as by “Henry,” a fan and fledgling musician.
2. Take producer Jonathan Demme’s challenge to record the songs the way Skip Spence made Oar, a lost classic from the psychedelic genius’s solo catalog.
3. Make sure at least one of said songs makes the film’s star, Anne Hathaway, cry on camera.
So how did Rice and Lewis — longtime romantic and musical partners (see: Jenny & Johnny) — get picked for the gig? “I think the reason [the producers] asked us to write the songs is because they were familiar with our work, both separately and together,” says Rice, “and I think they wanted whatever our flavor is.”
“Non-hits,” laughs Lewis, a beloved veteran of the bands Rilo Kiley and the Postal Service.
When writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland first met with the musicians to discuss the possibility of their involvement, the initial talks were about Forester and his backstory. “We talked a lot about what he would have poured into this first album, and they would come up with songs based on that,” she says. “Because they basically had to write an album for him.”
Barker-Froyland says she found herself sold on the pair as she was heading back to New York after meeting with them at their home base in Los Angeles. “Before the plane took off,” she says, “I checked my email and there was a song in my inbox and it was ‘Little Yellow Dress.’ I listened to it, and I was like, ‘They have to write James’s songs.’ ”
Song One is the first feature for Barker-Froyland, who has been working on the project for five of the six years she’s lived in Williamsburg. In the film, Hathaway’s character, Franny, is an emotionally closed-down academic who is forced to reconnect with her family, with both her brother Henry’s music and that of one of his idols, Forester, serving to forge new emotional pathways.
Lewis and Rice first read Barker-Froyland’s script in 2012. Rice said he was intrigued by the fact that it included seven songs with imaginary titles and no descriptions. “I’d never seen a script with that many original songs built in,” he says. “And a lot of the scenes were just of that song being played, no other dialogue. It seemed like a worthy challenge.”
There was much collaboration among the producers, songwriters, and Barker-Froyland, though not with actor/singer Johnny Flynn, who portrays Forester in the film. “I think Kate wanted to give Johnny the opportunity to absorb the songs and really interpret them,” Lewis says. “And he’s a singer-songwriter in his own right.”
Rice and Lewis started writing material before Flynn was even attached to the film, and his casting changed the character from American to British.
“The songs shifted a bit when he got the role,” Lewis says. “He imbued the songs with a very English sensibility, much to our surprise and delight. I think songs are meant to be interpreted and changed, and we weren’t there to direct in that way.”
In the film, Forester suffers from writer’s block, a plague not unknown to Lewis, who found the process of writing eleven songs for the movie (seven made the cut) to be cathartic.
“[Johnathan and I] have both experienced various degrees of writer’s block,” she says. “I always think that writing through it is probably the best solution, even if you have to write twenty shit songs to get one that’s mediocre. For me, I was in between records when we were asked to do the film, and I was kind of experiencing my own creative downturn, in a way. So to be able to write for this actually helped me get back to my own narrative.”
In fact, one of the songs that was “politely rejected” for Song One, “The New You,” ended up on Lewis’s 2014 release, The Voyager.
Song One is set within the music scene of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, at clubs including the Bowery Ballroom and the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and contains characters such as “Tattooed Hipster” and “Handlebar Moustache Doorman” (!). The soundtrack features Brooklyn musicians Sharon Van Etten and Elizabeth Simon. But it’s not a film about the burg and its hipster denizens.
“I didn’t set out to write a cool Brooklyn movie,” explains Barker-Froyland. “It’s really about how a single song can bring back memories. It can transport you immediately, but it can also help you live in the moment. My goal was to capture the emotional impact of that.”