Films depicting music — specifically the ones about people who make it and the intense passion it inspires in the rest of us — can be spotty affairs. It’s hard to convey on celluloid the electricity of a live concert experience. Several movies stand out, of course, from “The Last Waltz” to “Velvet Goldmine” to “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
“Song One” is another one that captures the joy of being a music fan. Written and directed by Kate Barker-Froyland, it’s a tender tale of romance and family dynamics set against a backdrop of New York clubs and the indie musicians who make them so vital.
Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, who goes on a spiritual quest to understand her brother, a fledgling musician whose future is uncertain after he’s struck by a car. Franny tracks down his favorite artist, James Forester, a scruffy singer-songwriter played by Johnny Flynn, who just happens to be a scruffy English singer-songwriter in real life, too.
Hathaway, 32, is no stranger to making movies about music. As Fantine, in “Les Misérables,” the role for which she won a 2012 best supporting actress Oscar, Hathaway sang a gut-wrenching version of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She also appeared last year in the video for indie-pop star Jenny Lewis’s “Just One of the Guys,” joining fellow actress Kristen Stewart in a backing band of ladies masquerading as dudes.
Lewis and Johnathan Rice, her partner and bandmate, wrote most of the music for “Song One,” aside from the originals performed live by the likes of the Felice Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, and Dan Deacon.
“I think this film is going to appeal to people who truly love music,” Hathaway says. “There’s a real community of people in this world who believe in music. And I’m certainly one of them.”
Ahead of the movie’s Friday opening, we caught up with Hathaway by phone to riff on matters musical.
Q. You seem at ease when you sing in films, which you do very casually in “Song One.” Are you a natural?
A. It’s circumstantial. In “Les Miz,” you better be natural. But in this movie, playing someone who’s not a singer, I was a little more timid, especially being around a lot of very real, dedicated musicians. The other day I was over at [a friend’s] house, and a dance session started. I was encouraged to get up and sing, and I was really shy.
Q. Do you like your singing voice?
A. Uh, it’s not my favorite [laughs].
Q. You’re learning to play guitar. Any songs you can already perform?
A. Yeah, a couple. I can play “Sea of Love.” And there’s a song I can play but I can’t talk about it because I learned it for my husband’s birthday. This is a little embarrassing, because it’s one of Jenny [Lewis]’s songs, but I’m learning to play “The Voyager” from her last album. That song just levels me.
Q. How do you describe your taste in music?
A. A little bit all over the map. I love indie rock and opera and jazz and musical theater. For a long time I wasn’t into country, and then one day I woke up and absolutely fell in love with it. I can’t think of a type of music that I don’t respond to. I’m just a music fan and lover.
Q. We should get you to the Newport Folk Festival, which is a New England institution.
A. You know, one of my favorite recordings of all time is Ella Fitzgerald live at the Newport Jazz Festival. [She’s referring to 1973’s “Newport Jazz Festival: Live at Carnegie Hall,” but close enough.] She sings her version of “Good Morning Heartache.” I was 15 the first time I heard it, and I think I listened to it for five years straight.
Q. In the film, your character’s brother is obsessed with music. Do you remember the first band or artist who made you feel that way?
A. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses — but that was only a few songs here and there, just the hits. The first band that I freaked out for was Green Day. I turned 12 right around the time “Dookie” came out, and I was just completely obsessed with that album, knew every word. Then my brother, for my 13th birthday, gave me Tori Amos’s “Little Earthquakes.” I remember I listened to the same three songs in order every night going to bed. It took me nine months to discover that there were more songs on the album. And then “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was another big one.
Q. Clearly your taste is all over the place.
A. The song I didn’t tell you? It was totally “Kokomo” [by the Beach Boys].
Q. Hey, no shame: I performed that at a talent show in junior high.
A. Me, too! Except I was in elementary school. And I had a toy plastic sax, and I pretended to do the sax solo.
Q. Did you know Johnny Flynn’s music before making this movie with him?
A. No, I didn’t. Kate knew his music. She had seen a film where one of his songs was included, and she loved it. She put it on our shared ongoing playlist. We had been looking [for someone to play] James Forester for a while, maybe a year. Then on the same day, three people called and asked if we had heard of Johnny Flynn. Then we started researching him and asked him to put himself on tape, which he did. We thought he was a really promising performer. My husband and I got married in late September , and we routed our honeymoon through London so that we could see Johnny perform. Kate was with us. After he auditioned, it was pretty apparent that he was going to be perfect for the role.
Q. In the video for “Just One of the Guys,” there’s a memorable close-up of a tear streaming down your face when Jenny sings, “I’m just another lady without a baby.” Settle a debate for me: Is that a sad or funny sentiment?
A. I think it’s both. I have days when that line hits me as sad and other days when it’s empowering. And then I have days where that line makes me smirk and raise two middle fingers to the sky.