Music as Redemption: GOD HELP THE GIRL

God Help The Girl

In 2009, Stuart Murdoch, leader singer/songwriter of the long running Scottish indie pop band Belle and Sebastian released a side project meant to be a soundtrack for an imaginary film in his head. GOD HELP THE GIRL ended up a Belle and Sebastian album in all but name, featuring a group of female vocalists, Murdoch taking the lead on two tracks and musical backing from the band. Five years later, the film is no longer imaginary, but a feature-length musical written and directed by Murdoch.

It begins with heroine Eve (Emily Browning), a young, aspiring singer/songwriter institutionalized for an eating disorder. Breaking out on her own, she meets James (Olly Alexander), a talented but socially hapless guitarist (and music obsessive); together with his friend Cassie (Hannah Murray), the three form a band, with James pining for Eve as she also courts Anton (Pierre Boulanger), a more seasoned musician/lothario. It’s a story as old as rock and roll itself, coming off like a younger, Glaswegian ONCE but with peppier, more ornately orchestrated songs and a specter of mental illness lurking around its edges. Browning and Alexander are an ideal Eve and James and sing Murdoch’s songs as well as any member of Belle and Sebastian could. The music, by the way, is sublime, especially later numbers like “Come Monday Night”, “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” and “A Down and Dusky Blonde” which prove far more effective in this fleshed out context than they did on the original album. Murray’s vocals may be a little too breathy for their own good, but she brings a contrasting, tart energy to Cassie that plays well off the others.

As a long-time fan of Murdoch’s work, I approached his first cinematic effort with both anticipation and caution, hoping for something transcendent but fearing an unwatchable vanity project. The end result is somewhere in-between—a little ramshackle and amateurish but often delightful and always sincere (and visually, just like a Belle and Sebastian album cover come to life). For instance, the entire sequence where Eve, James and Cassie take an afternoon rowboat excursion throughout the city could be seen as flabby and excisable, not adding much to the rest of the film, but by itself it’s simply a charming interlude, full of reflection and grace. Scenes like this go a long way in adding texture and personality, for one never doubts that this is exactly the film Murdoch set out to make.

If his aesthetic occasionally verges on the wrong side of precious or cute, as an outsider to the medium, he brings to it an uncommon sensibility, filtered through highly specific cultural and personal signifiers that breathe life into the well-worn premise of seeking strength and redemption through pop music. I don’t know if he has another film in him, but given this one’s autobiographical bent (Murdoch started his own band very much like Eve, James and Cassie do here), perhaps he doesn’t need to make another film—for all its faults, it crystallizes the same, inimitable qualities contained within his music.  Grade: B+

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