“Music & Lyrics” is about Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant), a washed-up 1980s pop star who's been reduced to working the nostalgia circuit at county fairs and amusement parks. The charismatic and talented musician gets a chance at a comeback, when reigning pop diva Cora Corman invites him to write and record a duet with her. But there's a problem: Alex hasn't written a song in years, he's never written lyrics–and he has to come up with a hit in a matter of days.
Enter Sophie Fisher (Drew Barrymore), Alex's beguilingly quirky plant lady, whose flair for words strikes a chord with the struggling songwriter. On the rebound from a bad relationship with the newly famous novelist Sloan Cates (Campbell Scott), Sophie is reluctant to collaborate with anyone, especially commitment-phobe Alex.
For filmmaker Marc Lawrence, writing and directing “Music & Lyrics” was a way to explore a world he's always been interested in–the world of writing music. “Even though I've been in a band, I'm a really bad musician,” he laments, “but I've always been fascinated by songwriting. I liked the idea of doing a film about a writer, but if I were to write about a screenwriter, it would get too close to my own personal agony,” he jokes. “So this was a way to write about the creative process, which I'm very familiar with, and also to write about my other great love: music.”
To create the fledgling writing team of Fletcher & Fisher, Lawrence researched legendary duos like the Gershwins and Elton John and Bernie Taupin. “I read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries,” he says. “In many of the more famous teams, one person writes lyrics and the other writes music. I knew the conflict of a team, where each person had a specific role in a creative process that is ultimately collaborative, could yield some good comedy.”
To add to the humor, Lawrence's music writers would have to be an unusual fit. “Alex was part of a Wham-like band known as 'PoP,' and his partner went on to great solo success; however Alex's career went absolutely the other way. Now, his only reliable gigs are state fairs and small local amusement parks, but even those are starting to look like long shots.”
Luckily for Alex, fortune smiles on him when the music industry's current “It Girl,” Cora Corman, decides she wants him to write her next song. “Alex gets the opportunity to write a duet for this Britney Spears-like artist,” states Lawrence. “At first, all she has is an idea for the title, which she calls “Way Back Into Love. Now she wants someone to write the song, and sing it live onstage with her at Madison Square Garden, when her album comes out in a few days. Cora seeks out Alex to write the song because his music inspired her when she was a little girl. She thinks he's retro, which is fine with Alex, as long as he gets a job out of it.”
Although, as a member of PoP, Alex produced several hits in the 1980s, he has never written lyrics. He also faces a tight turnaround time to write the song, and knows that he is going to be competing against other artists for the one available spot on Cora's album. Alex has only days to come up with a hit and reclaim his career.
Enter Sophie Fisher, a former writing student who has never attempted to write lyrics and, due to a bad break up with her writing professor, believes she'll never write anything again. “As it turns out however, she has a natural ability to write lyrics,” reveals Lawrence.
Sophie and Alex only meet by chance when the directionless Sophie comes to Alex's apartment to water his plants, a job she's doing temporarily to help a friend. “Alex wasn't unhappy with his life when he meets Sophie,” says Lawrence. “He's had to downsize and he' s no longer a big star but he's comfortable and he thinks he's figured out who he is. But then he opens his door one day and this exotic bird flies in and flaps around and flies out and he has this very strong reaction. He says, 'What was that.' Meeting Sophie gradually begins to change his life.”
The director continues, “Sophie is similar in that she doesn't want to rock the boat. She had her heart broken by her former professor and boyfriend, Sloan Cates, who betrayed her by writing a thinly veiled fictional account of their relationship, which is now a best-selling book. It's a very unflattering portrayal that calls Sophie an imitation of a writer who had no real talent or ability. Naturally this crushes Sophie, and she finds it impossible to write again.”
“When Sophie meets Alex, they're both sort of running on a treadmill and not moving forward at all. Both have lost the belief that they can create something beautiful and meaningful,” notes Drew Barrymore who plays Sophie in the film. “So here are these two lost souls who come together to write a song, and they do open each other up again to the fact that they have something to offer the world, to themselves and, ultimately, to each other.”
Hugh Grant, who stars as Alex Fletcher, also enjoyed playing a character that has fallen on tough times. “Alex was a world famous pop star and is now doing school reunion concerts. He handles his undignified position with great good humor, but in a sense with too much good humor. He's convinced himself that this is all he's really worth in life. He's scared of trying to be too creative again. He needs to be reminded that he's talented and passionate about his music. This is what Sophie does. She reawakens him both creatively and romantically. And he does the same for her in the end.”
But before they realize they can make great music together Alex tries to work with another lyricist and the collaboration fails miserably. Sophie, who happens to be tending to Alex's plants at the time, suggests a lyric or two, and Alex seizes on it, asking her to come up with more phrases. Sophie is reluctant but Alex realizes that he must drag the song out of her or put the final nail in the coffin of his career. Suddenly, these two people who don't know each other at all are thrust into a situation where they have to work together, intensely, for entire days at a time.
“These are two artists with very different styles, and suddenly they're locked in a room together. Their individual quirks begin to emerge and they really get to know each other the way you can with somebody in an intense period,” notes the director. “They're constantly writing and arguing and walking and eating, and writing and re-writing and trying to force out the song. And for anybody who's ever had that experience with someone trying to accomplish something creative or even traveling for a long period of time, you know you can get on each other's nerves and develop a very intimate relationship.”
Characters and Cast
As he began writing “Music and Lyrics,” Lawrence had only one actor in mind for the role of Alex Fletcher, Hugh Grant, with whom he had previously worked on the romantic comedy 'Two Weeks' Notice.” Having great respect for the actor's talent made it an easy choice. “He's the best comedic actor I can think of,” Lawrence comments. “He's great with a lot of words, and I write way too many words in my scripts. Thankfully, Hugh doesn't object. Also, he could play both the rock star side of this part and the guy who's very verbal, articulate and intelligent.”
Grant was immediately taken with the script. “I read a lot of romantic comedies and there are very few that make me laugh out loud on the page. This one did. I think Marc Lawrence is truly funny as a writer, though I have never liked him as a man,” he says with his tongue firmly placed in cheek.
When it came time to cast the woman who would become Alex's perfect partner in both business and romance, Lawrence approached Drew Barrymore. “Drew was the person I most wanted to send the script to. She's spontaneous and really, really funny,” states Lawrence. “And she also has vulnerability as an actress. There's nothing she can't do. When Drew smiles she takes the whole theater with her. There's no amount of teaching or coaching or pleading that can achieve that effect.”
Barrymore says she was drawn to the project for a multitude of reasons. “There's a style to this movie that's refreshing. I think Marc's writing is of another era; his style of banter reminds me of comedies from the forties and fifties where the man and woman really inspire each other and rally. It's like watching a tennis match.”
The actress also enjoyed the unique qualities of the characters she found in the script. “There's something about them that's true to people in real life. Marc's characters are very balanced and very specific with lots of idiosyncrasies. Sophie and Alex both have very different ways of dealing with life.”
Lawrence found that the different lifestyles of his two stars added to their on-screen chemistry. “They're very, very different people,” he confides about Barrymore and Grant. “If you go to their trailers, for example, it would be clear. Hugh's trailer is very neat; it's incredibly clean. And Draw's trailer is usually packed with 30 or 40 people, with clothes all over and dogs lying around. But they really enjoyed those differences and I found that it worked for their chemistry in the film because there's an odd couple aspect to it that is romantic, sexy and fun.”
While Grant and Barrymore had never worked together prior to beginning “Music and Lyrics,” they both admired the other's craft. “Hugh is a tremendous comedian and he's incredibly charming,” says Barrymore. “His acting has an old-fashioned, beautiful quality.”
“Drew brings a charm to any role. She's so clever and, apart from being a brilliant actress, she's also a very good bloke. She has a calming effect on set,” notes Grant. “Plus she makes her leading men look good, which is another reason I was so keen to work with her.” Lawrence sums it up. “I think we've got a really terrific pairing in Hugh and Drew.
The character that inadvertently brings Alex and Sophie together is young singing sensation Cora Corman, played by newcomer Haley Bennett. “We auditioned a lot of girls on both coasts for this role. We had a very specific idea of what we were looking for. Haley looked perfect and she could really sing, which was essential for the part,” states Lawrence. “She also got the comedy slant on Cora, which is a little out there and slightly spacey but also sweet.”
Bennett was ecstatic when she got the news that she'd be playing a multi-platinum recording artist. “I moved to California to be an actress and a singer and this part let me do both at the same time,” notes the enthusiastic young actress. “Cora's very spiritual but also very sensual. She's also a little insane; she does outrageous things. I did model her after some big pop stars, but she also has an original side. I love that she really cares about her music and its message…even if she is a little over-the-top about it.”
Observing her famous co-stars on set gave Bennett a valuable lesson in acting. “Watching Hugh and Drew work is amazing,” she says. “They're both so natural and relaxed and I was so nervous. They taught me that you have to be confident and feel comfortable when you are acting, because that's what people will see.”
The opportunity for Alex to write a song for today's biggest chart-topper is music to the ears of his loyal and optimistic manager and friend, Chris, played by TV veteran and three-time Emmy winner Brad Garrett. “Chris has been Alex's manager for years. They were together during the height of his fame, when girls were throwing their panties at Alex on stage, and he also hung in there for the leaner times. I guess the only difference is that the panties have gotten less skimpy as the fans got older. He doesn't see many bikinis anymore. Either way, they're both trying to jumpstart Alex's career,” Garrett remarks.
Lawrence was thrilled to have Garrett on set. “Brad was really open to stuff that I threw in at the last minute,” says the writer/director. “I really appreciated that. He was a great addition to the film.”
Starring as Sophie's sister, Rhonda, a die-hard PoP super-fan, is actress Kristen Johnston. Manager of the family weight-loss business, “Weight-Not,” Rhonda is a touchstone and confidante to her sister, who has trouble being objective when it comes to her teenage heartthrob. “My character was obsessed with Alex in high school. She had his Tiger Beat pictures everywhere,” comments Johnston. “So when Sophie comes to her and reveals that she's working with him, Rhonda freaks out and forces Sophie to drag her wherever Alex is. When Rhonda first sees Alex at the high school reunion concert he's playing, the memory of this great crush she had on him overtakes her. She bum rushes the stage and kind of terrifies Alex. She regresses to a really immature high school fan, which was tons of fun to play.”
The actress also enjoyed the more obvious contrasts of portraying Drew Barrymore's sibling. “It's kind of hard to imagine us as sisters physically because she comes up to my waist. But the relationship worked because the characters have a really strong sisterly bond. Rhonda is protective of Sophie and they share a sense of humor. We had a blast,” declares the actress. “I went into every scene with the objective of making Drew crack up.”
And it worked, as Barrymore attests, “Kristen was always throwing something new into the scene. I pretty much ruined her takes because I'd burst out laughing during them.” “Kristen is a force of nature,” declares Lawrence. “You can't teach anyone those kinds of comedy instincts.”
Rounding out the cast is Campbell Scott as Sloan, the contemptible literature professor who breaks Sophie's heart. “Sloan is a real jerk,” notes the actor, who goes on to qualify, “but a charming one. Both my character and Hugh Grant's character are writers–not exactly prize fighters–but we get into a physical scuffle when I insult Sophie. The fight is pretty hilarious–and it's over just as fast as it started. Later Hugh's character laments that he got beat up by a National Book Award winner. I guess he didn't realize my character was a martial artist, too,” he jokes.