“A man only needs to write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. It’s not easy. Many men and women have lived empty wasted lives in attics trying to write the classic pop songs. What they don’t realize is, it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. The god of music. Or the part of God that concerns himself with music.”
— James, God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl had a long road to the screen. It started as a musical project for Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, who wanted to write for women’s voices. Eventually, when the project grew from a collection of songs to a full-fledged musical, the idea for a movie started to take root. Still, the project followed the Jesus Christ Superstar model of releasing a soundtrack first; Murdoch famously posted fliers around town advertising “girl singer needed for autumnal recording project.” The result was 2009’s album God Help the Girl. When it didn’t light sales charts on fire, Murdoch, undeterred, turned to Kickstarter for film funding and eventually secured distribution. The voices were re-cast, and filming began in earnest, with the film finally released in 2014.
Not that you would learn much about this process from the DVD of God Help the Girl, however. There is a brief feature about the making of the movie that touches on some of the major bullet points, but it feels like all of Murdoch’s material was cobbled together from preexisting interviews. Instead, producer Barry Mendel is left to fill in the blanks from Murdoch’s absence. The DVD also has a couple of brief deleted scenes and a music video — most enjoyable all — but doesn’t have a commentary track. With the lack of a Blu-ray release in the U.S., the DVD itself feels like it only exists to fulfill some kind of Kickstarter obligation.
In the absence of in-depth feature materials, the movie is mostly meant to speak for itself. Thankfully, it has a lot of things to say, and an artsy, quirky, heartfelt, musical way of saying it.
The premise itself is simple enough. The musically gifted Eve (Emily Browning) decides to leave a hospital, where she was being treated for anorexia. She runs across James (Olly Alexander), who’s not as talented as she is but is more dedicated to the pure, artistic expression of music, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a spirited rich girl just learning to write songs. The three of them spend the summer becoming friends, forming a band, writing songs, preparing for an upcoming gig, and negotiating fledgling romances, both requited and unrequited.
This all mostly happens through Murdoch’s songs, though prior knowledge of the Belle and Sebastian discography isn’t necessary. The result gives the impression of a series of linked music videos starring Browning; the songs sometimes advance the plot, and other times are performed in the guise of the music the three friends are making. The latter sometimes stops the momentum of the movie for what feels like a musical cul-de-sac until it becomes clear that plot isn’t the most essential element of the God Help the Girl experience. Instead, it’s more about feeling: the exuberance of a dance-hall rousing number like “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” or lonely yearning of “Pretty Even in the Tub”. Browning and Alexander both have pleasant voices suited to the throwback nature of the songs; Browning especially sounds like she’d be equally at home fronting a twee-leaning indie outfit or a ’60s girl group.
But while the songs come often, to call the movie a thin wrap-around narrative for music videos is to be too dismissive; Murdoch is equally concerned with the look of the picture; there is a handmade quality to the filmmaking. Murdoch described the movie to an audience at a Q&A in New York City as bringing the aesthetic of a Belle and Sebastian album cover to life. Everything looks perfectly retro, all Breton stripes and Peter Pan collars, as if the movie were unearthed whole while rummaging in a well curated vintage store. Though it may be stylish and stylized, that’s not to say it’s aloof or ultra-serious; there’s a lot of playfulness here, and Murdoch takes every opportunity to slip in a visual joke without commenting on it, like casually standing one of his characters in front of a store mannequin dressed exactly like him.
Taken together, most of God Help the Girl concerns itself with the creation of art: whether or not talent is innate, where it might come from — and it’s not too squeamish about religion to suggest that God is the source — and how it should be shared with the world, if at all. These are big ideas to grapple with through indie-pop songs, but the movie is able to tackle these questions seriously without ever getting bogged down in itself or weighed down by its own artistic ambition. Instead, it’s mix of silliness and seriousness, music and melodrama, and impeccable style with imperfect filmmaking combine to make God Help the Girl a film that’s top-to-bottom charming.