When we’re young, music means everything to us. It’s our first connection to culture, our own insular soundtrack to the comedy/tragedy of our unexplainable, developing lives. So something like God Help the Girl makes sense. This complicated comedy of age effort from Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch may seem stuck in the inner workings of its characters’ heads, but the indie icon’s songs more than make up for what his ability behind the lens and the laptop can’t. Yes, this is an amateurish effort, but it’s also a bright and ebullient attempt to explain how the sounds surrounding us both soothe and suffocate.
Initially developed as a song cycle to be sung by modern day “girl groups,” this decade-in-the-making vanity project suffers from some of the same problems any singular vision does. In essence, you have to be synced to the mindset Murdoch is exploring. When you are, as in the opening sequence where our heroine Eve (Emily Browning) escapes a mental hospital where she’s being treated for anorexia and sings along to every step of her eventual arrival in Glasgow, the joys can be smile-inducing. When they don’t, as during some of the sloppy interplay between our eventual love triangle, it all becomes an exercise in drudgery.
You see, Eve wants to be a musician. She is convinced that if the local radio station would play her demo, she would be instantly discovered. She meets Anton (Pierre Boulanger), the lead singer of an up and coming group known as Wobbly-Legged Rat, and is immediately smitten. He agrees to give her tape to some friends in the business, and the duo begin dating. Simultaneously, Eve also strikes up a friendship/partnership with James (Olly Alexander). He longs to be a songwriter. With the help of his guitar student Cassie (Hannah Murray), he forms a band with Eve called God Help the Girl. Everything seems fine until James learns of Anton, and vice versa.
Amid all its cliches, its obvious bows to rock films past, and twee trivializations, God Help the Girl is still quite charming. It catches you off guard at times, like that deep album track you forgot on an old LP. Just when you think Murdoch can’t make more musical meaning out of his tuneful musings, along come songs like “Come Monday Night” or the terrific title track and you are once again sent soaring on waves of pure pop pleasure. In fact, had Murdoch found a way to make the entire movie like Les Miserables, with the characters singing everything we need to know, it might have worked better. Instead, we are stuck with conversational insights as familiar as the feeling one gets when hearing such tired interpersonal bon mots.
It’s a one-sided work, and the movie both benefits greatly and suffers mightily because of it. Murdoch is making the movie he wanted to make, and no one is going to stop him. Yes, that can result in both brilliance and buffoonery, but the cast is so complementary to what their creator is doing that we don’t deny them the pleasure of our attention. Instead, we find ourselves reflecting on our own younger days, of seeing how a desire to make music is really a request to be paid attention to and appreciated. It’s the universal theme — inexperience and looking for one’s voice all wrapped up in an obvious analogy. Again, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but like the film itself, it’s often very effective.
Given over to someone with the skill to make true musical magic, God Help the Girl might have been a wonder. On the other hand, it would have lost a lot of the “local” color that Murdoch and his years in the business bring. Our favorite songs may indeed trigger deep connections to the past. By turning this idea on itself, God Help the Girl eventually wins us over.