In 2009, Belle and Sebastian mastermind Stuart Murdoch released a concept album under the guise of God Help the Girl, the name of both the album and the collective of musicians behind it. It was a break away from his Scottish band’s usual stylings in that it was primarily penned for female vocalists known and unknown, though male singers like The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Murdoch himself made memorable appearances on a few tracks. Additionally, while Belle and Sebastian’s most beloved songs can often be taken as their own singular, compelling tales, the God Help the Girl album was a larger narrative project, with the songs tracking protagonist Eve through various woes and successes. Five years later, a long-gestating film adaptation of the album has arrived, courtesy of producer Barry Mendel (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and some support through Kickstarter, with Murdoch making his directorial debut with the film.
Shot on often dreamy 16mm, the colourful film tracks aspiring songwriter Eve (here Australian and played by Emily Browning, giving her finest performance to date) as she abandons her hospital treatment for depression and anorexia and wanders through the city of Glasgow, Scotland’s musical capital. She befriends Englishman James (Olly Alexander), a textbook but funny music nerd who obsesses over the idea of creating a classic pop song. The pair don’t have all that much in common outside of their shared musical tastes and concerns, but that’s a strong enough camaraderie for them to pursue starting a pop group with the film’s final central player, Cassie (Hannah Murray), an English girl attending a private school in the city that James helps teach. Along the way, there’s friendship and romantic highs and lows, lapses into inevitable sadness, and an ethereal wispiness you’d inevitably expect if you heard the frontman of Belle and Sebastian was making a movie.
There are hints of Jacques Demy aspirations, fashion chic in vein with the Nouvelle Vague, and one can’t help but think of the films of Scotland’s Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Comfort and Joy) with the mostly warm tone of God Help the Girl’s use of inner and greater Glasgow. What Murdoch’s film most recalls, however, is the British New Wave of the 1960s, particularly the works of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack …and How to Get It) and John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar; Browning’s Eve even sports a hairstyle for a while that strongly recalls British New Wave regular Rita Tushingham. (Not quite early enough to be part of that cinematic cycle, Jerzy Skolimowski’s offbeat 1970 masterpiece Deep End might also be read as being homaged in a few key pool-set scenes.)
That’s a lot of cinematic DNA to cram into a directorial debut, not to mention the imagery and concerns of Belle and Sebastian’s near twenty-year discography that naturally make their way in. It will likely come as no surprise then that God Help the Girl is subsequently quite a spotty movie indeed, but it’s one where the exuberant passion being thrown into the thing by its helmer and team is enough to win one over even when proceedings lag on more than one occasion. The execution of the serious anorexia and depression elements doesn’t always jive so well with the jokier supporting material, while one or two musical numbers could have been cut from the 111-minute runtime and would hardly have been missed; “Pretty Eve in the Tub” was arguably the original concept album’s weakest track, and its realisation in the film is really quite creepy. Thankfully, lively performances like “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” and “Musician, Please Take Heed” mostly make up for the lulls, with Murdoch and editor David Arthur exhibiting notable skill with these particularly big, cross-cutting numbers.
Additionally, some may take umbrage with this Glasgow-heavy movie lacking a single Scottish character in the lead roles (Murdoch apparently altered the nationalities from the screenplay once he’d settled on Browning, Alexander and Murray from the casting auditions), but, bar the odd bit of cultural specificity here and there, Glasgow is largely used for its beautiful locales (and how pretty it looks here, in comparison to most non-Forsyth features that incorporate it). Like numerous other musicals in cinema history, the city is just the chosen backdrop for a thin sliver of a plot and freewheeling energy. It’s not like An American in Paris had all that many French natives in it either.
— Josh Slater-Williams