Film of the Week: God Help the Girl
It may not surprise you to hear that Stuart Murdoch’s musical God Help the Girl is a little, well, precious. It’s a word that crops up endlessly in discussions of the writer-director’s other job as singer and main songwriter for Scottish group Belle and Sebastian (their very name, from a Sixties French TV series about a boy and a fluffy dog, tells you you’re not dealing with Mastodon). Murdoch delivers his elegant, witty lyrics for the band in a light, reedy voice, projecting an effete café-society persona that makes Morrissey look like a burly pub landlord (these days, of course, Morrissey does look like a burly pub landlord). Murdoch’s shtick, and the variously bouncy and wistful mix of folk, indie, and Sixties pop that accompanies it, demand either to be taken with a cynic’s pinch of salt or followed with reverent adoration—and legions of fans opt for the latter.
God Help the Girl, which premieres tomorrow at Sundance, is Murdoch’s debut as a filmmaker (and screenwriter). The Kickstarter-funded feature has had an interesting gradual development, yielding several musical releases including a self-titled album in 2009, credited to God Help the Girl—also the name of the band in the film.
God Help the Girl—the fictional band—is not Belle and Sebastian, but their sound is similar, as is the cover art of the real-life recordings, with their photos of pensive, art-studenty young women. And the film’s characters would certainly be Belle and Sebastian fans if they weren’t themselves in a group that seems, right down to its string section and ambitious arrangements, very much like B&S reincarnated as a vehicle for a female lead singer.
Murdoch’s film features new versions of songs from the GHTG repertoire, and its heroine is Eve (Emily Browning), resident in a mental health center where she’s undergoing therapy for anorexia. In the opening sequence, she sings, “I’m bored out of my mind, too sick to even care,” and she clambers out of a window and runs off to a gig at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom. There are two bands playing—one a mundane guitar outfit with a narcissistically handsome Swiss singer, Anton (Pierre Boulanger). The other, more memorable for all the wrong reasons, is King James the Sixth of Scotland, led by delicate, bespectacled James (Olly Alexander), who’s punched out by his drummer when he’s barely begun his first song (“Yer a bloody tea drinker, you shouldn’t be in a band”). The drummer may have a point: even James admits, not without pride, “I’ve got the constitution of an abandoned rabbit.”
Improbably a lifeguard in a university swimming pool—where he looks like a lost five-year-old in his T-shirt and trunks—James instantly clicks with Eve as an artistic kindred spirit and platonic bosom buddy, and she moves in with him, abandoning her therapy. Both have songwriting aspirations, and when they give a music lesson to the ever so genteel Cassie (Hannah Murray), the three of them resolve to form a band. Being in a band, however, mainly involves mooning about in amusing hats, taking languid canoeing trips, and in James’s case, theorizing airily about the great pop tradition.
When the three actually get it together to perform, you’d be surprised how easy it is: they hand out photocopied ads for musicians, and a crowd of eager applicants pursues them through the streets—even, for some reason, a double of Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music. Next thing you know, a large, polished ensemble, string section and all, is playing one of their several literate, wispy ditties. In all the annals of movies about forming bands, I’ve never seen it done so easily. Maybe it just struck me that way by contrast: in the last film I saw on this theme, the Mexican feature We Are Mari Pepa, the struggling punk act still had produced only one number by the end, with the shouted English chorus “IwannacomeinyerfaceNATASHA!” (it’s quite alarmingly catchy, too).
As a Scottish film, God Help the Girl manifestly owes a lot to the carefree mood of Bill Forsyth’s fondly remembered (and, north of the border, dearly revered) 1981 teen romance Gregory’s Girl. (Murdoch’s film admires Emily Browning’s knees much as its predecessor did those of its heroine.) And, like the B&S style, the film’s “sensitive smart kid” aesthetic is rooted in the local indie-pop tradition of the early Eighties Postcard Records bands (Orange Juice, Aztec Camera et al), who adopted a stance of languid dandyism as a conscious reaction against the Scottish cult of working-class machismo—a radical position of sorts in the years following the boom of sexually normative punk.
God Help the Girl album image
But Murdoch’s film reenacts that reaction in an uncomfortable way: Eve and her pals live in an aesthetes’ private world a universe away from the hard Glaswegian boys who regard them with bemused contempt. As the trio drift by in their canoe, some lads ogle Cassie: “She’s a wee English rose. I bet she’s dirty” (in fact, there’s no evidence that she’s anything but decorously fragrant). “This is a ned town now,” James tut-tuts—“neds” being a disparaging term for young Scottish toughs, a word that Peter Mullan reclaimed in his underrated 2010 drama of the same name. Keeping a knowing distance from James’s dainty sniffiness, the film doesn’t necessarily subscribe wholeheartedly to his snobbery, but characterizing neds as a monstrous Other doesn’t look so funny in a Conservative-led Britain that has viciously ill-served the working class.
In many ways, this is the least Scottish of Scottish films—Cassie is English, James Scots-born but raised in England, and Eve an Australian who came to the U.K. following a boy in a band. It’s tempting to take the neds’-eye-view of Murdoch’s twee three—at any rate, the film defies you to either adore or revile them outright. Eve and her chums are variously neurotic, whimsical, and downright soppy, at moments almost creepily so: the loveliest melody here, set to baroque strings, belongs to “Pretty Eve in the Tub,” sung by James as he pines ineffectually outside the bathroom door (“Please allow me to scrub, please allow me to rub”). In this oddly childlike world, sex never quite figures: Eve sleeps with the hunky Anton, but we only see her in demure post-coital reverie, sheet wrapped chastely around her. Yet Murdoch is perfectly aware of the ludicrousness of his film’s infantilism, as signaled by Eve’s song “The Psychiatrist Is In”: “Grow up, you’re nearly 25 / What happened when you were a child?”
Murdoch hasn’t really figured out a strategy for shifting between his realist world—of Glaswegian landscapes, therapy centers, and actual emotional unrest—and the retro fantasy realm of British pop musicals. In terms of playing romance against realism, the film isn’t quite The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, let’s say. But GHTG isn’t after that level of sophistication—it yearns for an innocence that’s closer to Cliff Richard vehicles like Summer Holiday, albeit with a strong dose of French yé-yé urbanity. The film may suffer from a lack of dramatic concentration; several scenes just tail off when they’re beginning to show promise. But it’s most effective when it lets its hair down and gets into the musical routines. Some of these feel cheerfully slapdash, but that adds to the charm: “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie,” played at a tea dance attended by pensioners and rockers, is a lot of fun, like a cheaper, more pure-minded Hairspray.
God Help the Girl album cover
Emily Browning’s character is perhaps not that much more substantial than her action waif in Sucker Punch; but the camera loves her, she makes a meal out of flirting primly with it, and she vindicates herself as a more than passable singer, much as Carey Mulligan did guesting on B&S’s Write About Love album. Hannah Murray is toothily jejune, and oddly reminiscent of Sally Thomsett from the much-loved 1970 British children’s film The Railway Children—which you imagine is Murdoch’s idea of the perfect gang to hang with. And although Olly Alexander’s foppish James is probably the film character I’ve most wanted to slap in a very long time, there’s no denying he plays him with gusto and consistency.
It’s easy to categorize Murdoch’s film as a vanity project, but if it is, it’s a very honest one. It will speak very directly to people who like Belle and Sebastian, and it’s an interesting case of what crowdsourcing can do for films when there’s a pre-existing fan base involved. It can result in features like this, which avoid commercial compromise and achieve some sort of quintessence of what admirers ideally expect from an artist. In many senses, this is exactly what you’d imagine a Stuart Murdoch film would be, and not in a bad way. DP Giles Nuttgens, who shot Scottish landscapes so persuasively in David Mackenzie’s Young Adam, makes Glasgow in summer look more lyrical than you might have expected; it’s exactly the town you always imagined Murdoch’s narrative numbers taking place in.
God Help the Girl is not a film for cynics—either of the musical or cinematic persuasion—but it’s done with good humor and integrity, and for all its flaws, I’d rather have it over a hundred conventional jukebox musicals of the Mamma Mia! school. If you’re even remotely willing to entertain a nostalgic fantasy of bohemian cafés inhabited by wan, bookish boys and girls in bobs and berets, then you may find it harder to resist then you’d expect.