Most everyone has that certain song, one that takes you back in your mind and heart to an earlier time and place. But imagine if that song were an entire album. And it essentially locked you in a place in the past.
For the filmmakers of “Juliet, Naked,” one of the key challenges was creating brand new music that sounded like it was made in the 1990s and was worthy of obsessing over for all the years since.
“Believe me, I went through a moment where I was thinking, ‘Is there a way of making this movie where you never hear the music?’” said director Jesse Peretz. “And there was no way around making that music. The scariest thing about putting this movie together was being able to actually produce songs that thread that needle of being worthy enough.”
In the movie, based on the 2009 novel by Nick Hornby, Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) lives in a small English seaside town where his grand passion is the music of Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), an enigmatic singer-songwriter who dropped out of sight just as he was nearing the peak of his fame in the 1990s.
After Duncan receives a disc of previously unheard Tucker Crowe demos, titled “Juliet, Naked,” he is more than slightly annoyed when his patient, neglected girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), writes a negative review online. She soon receives an email from Crowe himself and begins a secret correspondence with her boyfriend’s idol. All three of them wind up confronting the people they are and the people they are perhaps meant to be.
To craft Crowe’s songs, Peretz, composer Nathan Larson and music supervisor Marguerite Phillips pulled together an impressive collection of songwriters, many with deep ties to the ’90s. Evocative of the work of revered musicians such as Jeff Buckley, Chris Bell and Paul Westerberg, the songs of Tucker Crowe are not only credible in the movie but they are also catchy and poignant all on their own.
With fresh tunes written by Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock, Conor Oberst and M. Ward, along with songs and music by Larson, the movie’s soundtrack indeed feels like a lost grunge-era troubadour’s plaintive laments.
Hornby’s novel, which was adapted for the screen by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor and Tamara Jenkins, contains only a few clues and assorted descriptions of Crowe’s work — mostly song titles — so it was very open-ended how the music should sound. Yet the music created for the film suitably matched whatever the author heard in his head.
“I’d say it’s pretty close,” Hornby, an executive producer on the movie, said via email of the finished songs. “But the challenge was Jesse’s, not mine! It’s easy to write this stuff in a book, knowing that nobody will ever hear it — another thing to make it come to life.”
Peretz, an Emmy nominee for his work directing on “GLOW,” was himself a musician as a member of the ’90s band the Lemonheads before becoming a filmmaker. For the “Juliet” project, he turned to longtime friend and collaborator Larson. The two first met in the early ’90s when the band Larson was in, Shudder to Think, opened for the Lemonheads in England. They were later roommates in New York City.
Larson has written songs meant to stand in for music from another era before, including for Peretz’s 1997 debut feature, “First Love, Last Rites,” but also for Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” and the recent short-lived television series “Vinyl.” As someone who made music in the ’90s, Larson had a lot of personal opinions and feelings that he had to set aside in creating the music of “Juliet.”
“I would start doing something that was a totally ’90s-type idiom and then think, ‘I hate that change. I can’t do that,’” he said. “You sort of figure out what are the things that make a ’90s-sounding thing a ’90s-sounding thing. There’s a particular type of chord that a lot of people used, a particular type of drumbeat, a particular snare sound that was very typical. You kind of have to really identify surgically what those things are.
“And Ethan Hawke is such a committed lover of music, he did such a great job of interpreting these songs. They’d been sung originally by pretty accomplished vocalists and he just did an amazing job. It was all about presentation. He would sing them as if he was acting them.”
Ryan Adams, a seven-time Grammy nominee, previously wrote songs for a Neil Diamond-like singer played by Al Pacino in the 2015 movie “Danny Collins.” For “Juliet, Naked,” he needed only a minimal amount of guidance before sitting down to write and record the song “20th Call of the Day.”
“I believe the only direction I asked for or was given was the title of the song, which for me really set my engines going,” Adams said via email.
“I love writing on demand. I have had incredible experiences with that process. If I were to guess why, I would reason that the song was meant to be forming itself in the abstract, in the chaos of information and kind of like a hyperactive golden retriever once the door is open to the backyard. I just run right into the pool. If the pool were full of songs.”
Hitchcock had an animal analogy of his own to describe his writing process and the creation of the song “Sunday Never Comes.”
“I still don’t know where songs come from,” he said on the phone from his home in Nashville. “You lay in wait. If you wait too long, the songs hear you and they won’t come out. You have to get on with your own business, or rather ignore them and then they’ll start to appear. They’re a bit like cats, almost, they come of their own volition. They usually come when you’re trying to do something else.”
Hitchcock, who first rose to prominence with the post-punk psychedelia of the Soft Boys before a long-running solo career, recalled he previously wrote an unused song for Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do!” — “it’s on a cassette somewhere” — a faux early 1960s pop number.
For the “Juliet” project, Hitchcock was likewise given a few titles to work with, also coming up with a few of his own, and he read the script. Hitchcock, 65, said he enjoyed the in-character aspect of writing for the movie — imagining the songs of promise and emotional torment that a 20- or 21-year-old would have written.
“They were looking for the style of the songwriter,” said Hitchcock, “and here were various names they threw out, in the style of Nick Drake and John Cale — and that was one of the names, Robyn Hitchcock. So I was already in the template. I had to access my inner Robyn Hitchcock.”
The story’s distinction between the fan and the fawned over and those caught in the middle was on Hornby’s mind as well. His first novel, also adapted into a film, was “High Fidelity,” which similarly presented a music obsessive as a beleaguered romantic. In “Juliet, Naked,” the character of Duncan often seems even more cutoff, and a tad pathetic, though he does give a heartfelt defense of the music of Tucker Crowe directly to Tucker Crowe.
“The big difference between ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Juliet, Naked’ is that when I was writing the latter, I had fans of my own, so I was thinking from two different perspectives,” said Hornby. “I was much more aware of what it’s like to put something out in the world and have it mean something to some people and nothing to others.”