If there’s something that movies have taught me, it’s that, for most people, at least one of the best nights ever are spent walking around a city with your friends. It’s a night that feels where everything has aligned at the perfect time, where, “just for a moment we were all in the right place and the possibilities were infinite”, unexpected but full of meaning and memories.
Enter God Help the Girl, a pop musical that is exactly what you imagine what would transpire if Wes Anderson teamed with Scottish pop outfit Belle and Sebastian to create a musical by way of Once – twee, but not quite choreographed within an inch of its’ life. Written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch, this is the story of Eve (Emily Browning), an Australian living in a town that’s “not quite Glasgow”. In a hospital recovering from anorexia, Eve, an aspiring songwriter who sneaks out some nights to see bands in the city. One night, she meets James (Olly Alexander), another aspiring musician who is a lifeguard at the university. Moving into James’s apartment, she’s introduced to Cassie (Hannah Murray), his guitar student, and the three, unfettered by responsibility, decide to form a pop group.
Because his songs have always been written resembling short stories, with a multitude of characters and detailed situations that unfold, it was only a matter of time until Murdoch’s work was committed to a narrative form. They’re quite deceptive – they may sound naive and sweet, but upon further listening, you find the undercurrents of pain and loss. Here, Murdoch largely takes the 2009 self-titled album of his side project God Help the Girl and the characters within it, filling them out into a film where song and speech fit perfectly together, never feeling stilted and out of place.
The only area that it falls short is the exploration of Eve’s anorexia and recovery, forgetting about it largely until the closing twenty minutes, despite the effective handling of it. The small amount of heart-to-hearts and expositional dialogue however fits Murdoch’s aim, which is not to create a film just about the unifying, healing power of music, but youth in general, a time where thoughts are not always best expressed by oneself, instead we look to others that describe what we are feeling in a much more articulate way. Whether through music, film, or books, ours and other people’s worlds become interchangeable. It’s a time where things are free to happen purely through coincidence, including unexpected wandering and pop groups.
For the lack of backstory for Eve’s very real turmoil though, Browning’s incredibly expressive face and eyes convey a spectrum of emotional depth that’s not expressly stated in the script. She changes between melancholic waif to confident seductress in an instant, lighting up when she’s given the opportunity to sing her little heart out. Giles Nuttgens (who did some of the best work of 2013 in What Maisie Knew)’s camera is intrusive, theatrical, an audience member. Eve acknowledges the camera’s presence as a rose-coloured window at every turn, staring into it with her wide eyes. For her, life is a constant performance of monologue-like songs to escape from her world of pain and struggle with growing up, an endless fantasy of song and dance. Glasgow appears as ethereal, shot on 16mm that turns to gold in one of the biggest musical numbers, I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie. Rainless, sunny and lush, it’s as fantastical as you could get.
God Help the Girl‘s slightly imperfect, rough-around-the-edges presentation is perfect when it comes to maintaining its loose spontaneity. It will grate some, for its wide-eyed ideology, of a time where the things that we believe in and are passionate about are more important than anything else, where our creative work is not just sweet creative expression but also part of spirituality, with a much smarter core, but its energy and commitment to reviving the lost art of the movie musical will delight others. I’m definitely on the latter side. My only wish? That incredible dance break to Musician, Please Take Heed went for longer.