Stuart Murdoch wanted to create a 1960s girl group. Unfortunately for the leader of twee pop band Belle & Sebastian, this idea popped into his head in 2004, 40 years too late. “Sha-na-na” had been replaced by “Hey Ya”, miniskirts overthrown by mini-miniskirts, and “96 Tears” taken to “69 Tears” levels. The days of black-and-white variety shows with women singing in three-part harmony to “It’s My Party” had gone the way of the Ed Sullivan buffalo. But Murdoch was undeterred by notions of decades, relevancy, and digital cable. Slowly but surely, his dreams became reality.
2009 saw the release of the album God Help the Girl, which showcased several female vocalists (with the occasional Murdoch drop-in), and in 2014 his goal is now fully realized in the form of a movie musical, also titled God Help the Girl. In addition to songwriting, the frontman took a stab at both writing and directing the film, the first time he had attempted either. Murdoch’s unfamiliarity with filmmaking is on full display throughout, but this isn’t always a negative. Though there are some wonky storytelling elements, there is a freedom seen and heard here that we didn’t get with recent studio musicals like Rock of Ages or Les Miserables. This is absolutely Murdoch’s movie for Stuart Murdoch, with an attitude of “If you like my movie, cool. If you don’t, that’s cool, too.”
The film follows Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman recently institutionalized for anorexia treatments and her dreams of being in a pop band. Early in the film, she meets nerdy singer-songwriter James (Olly Alexander) and the two bond over their love of music. James is smitten, but Eve desires a bad-boy lead singer of another band. The duo becomes a trio once they begin working with the goofy but lovable Cassie (Hannah Murray, light years away from her role as Game of Thrones’ Gilly), whom, you guessed it, also wants to start a group but can’t write a song to save her life.
God Help the Girl incorporates music from the 2009 album in a variety of ways. Eve pretends to be a doctor and “treats” James in his apartment for “The Psychiatrist Is In”. Later, James longs for her on the opposite side of the bathroom door during his song “Pretty Eve in the Tub”, and the whole group comes together to rehearse “Come Monday Night”. There are moments of commentary that acknowledge the silliness of the movie musical and musicals in general when after one particular song James asks Eve if she sings to boys often. Hell, a dog is asked to fetch a friend during “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” and succeeds!
From a performance standpoint, the chemistry between Browning’s depressed Eve and Alexander’s pining James is undeniable. Both fully commit themselves to their performances, trusting in the first time director to properly guide them, no matter how off-the-rails certain sequences become. Browning has to play the role of a sick girl who doesn’t make it through the film unscathed while Alexander has to pine without being to creepy about it. Other performers may have missed the mark with these characters, but these two don’t. Murray’s Cassie is played for comic relief, and the actress elicits laughs throughout the film, even if her vocals are a weak spot when compared to the other two leads.
If I haven’t mentioned that this is Murdoch’s baby, then let me make that abundantly clear: this movie is Stuart Murdoch’s baby. At its very core, it’s Belle & Sebastian: The Movie, what with all the hip garments worn by the main trio, the twee tunes, and the pains of being pure at art. Therein lies the problem with the film. It will be attractive to fans of B&S (in which I am a card-carrying member), but understandably a turnoff for fans who don’t buy into Murdoch’s romanticisms, either as a musician or a filmmaker. There are certain risks the director takes that come off a bit forced and precious (especially certain film montages mixed with home movie footage), and there are certain storytelling elements with familiar beats (the aforementioned jerk of a boyfriend, best friend who wants more, etc.), but when the music arrives, the film takes off. Murdoch’s strength has been and always will be his songwriting, and there is nothing wrong with that. As for God Help the Girl, come for the movie, struggle through the story, and embrace the tunes.