The apogee of cinema that experienced filmmakers have either struggled to make (Steven Soderbergh, Danny Boyle) or tripped over on their first and only attempt (Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese), the musical has long been a holy grail quest of ambitious filmmaking. Beguiling for its challenging nature and degree of difficulty to pull off, many have tried and many have failed to successfully climb this desired genre-peak. Due to its cultural currency plummeting over the years, finding the finances for such a project is rare, hence a confluence of reasons why audiences seldom see the musicals (Lars Von Trier and Baz Luhrmann come to mind as recent exceptions).
Arguably, the most visual and pure cinema form, it’s ill-advised to attempt a musical without significant preparation, skill, practice and deep understanding of the medium of filmmaking. Which is perhaps why Stuart Murdoch—the frontman/founder of the cherished Scottish orchestral pop band Belle & Sebastian—stumbles so badly with his debut film, the musical “God Help The Girl.”
Often unfairly maligned as “twee as fuck,” it’s true, Belle & Sebastian are often deeply fey and exasperatingly dainty, but the genius of the band—infectious, terrifically constructed pop songs with delicately intimate and insular sensibilities—has always been about turning their most precious qualities into virtues seemingly sung and championed for the disenfranchised beret-wearing art students of the world (for the record, this writer is a fan and always felt they were a spiritual cousin to The Smiths in their affection and tenderness for the misunderstood).
And so, “God Help The Girl” is, in many ways, “Belle & Sebastian: The Movie,” except finding the band’s hyper-gifted and accomplished lead songwriter way out of his depth in grasping the language and grammar of film. Following Eve (Emily Browning), her mental health, self-esteem and failure-to-belong issues, “God Help The Girl” is perhaps akin to “Girl, Interrupted” in its female-in-distress storyline that centers around music. But the love of music and the unearthing of true blue friends help Eve come to defining moments of self-discovery that will help her on her way (if that sounds a little banal that’s because it is). If Belle & Sebastian songs were about the intersection of where mods, rockers, emo kids and more congregated to sing and dance on the streets of Glasgow about the various estrangements of their lives, that might aptly sum up the movie’s backdrop, which finds Eve and her friends forming a band just for the pure art of it.
Most egregious is just how painfully uncinematic “God Help The Girl” is, perhaps a blasphemy when it comes to the form and function of the musical. You’ve never seen such an incredulously nonndynamic explode-into-song musical sequence as the one that features Browning and Alexander singing in a 8×10 box of a bedroom. And Murdoch’s film features plenty of these dire, deal-breaking miscalculations. “God Help The Girl” is more like a collection of poorly shot, low-budget music videos stitched together onto a anorexically thin storyline, than it is a fully formed and cohesive movie.
Problems of pacing are overwhelming as well, as the picture move to a listless and dull rhythm that also seems like musical heresy (running just shy of two hours, every ticking moment past the 90-minute mark begins to feel like a grinding ordeal). Transitions—which mean everything when you use music to burst into emotional expression—are also awkward, clunky and rough around the edges.
The mechanics of cinema have a mysteriously intangible quality that has baffled even the greatest of filmmakers. You could shoot a scene to a particular song, but then enter the editing room and realize—for whatever furtive, ineffable reasons—the music just isn’t cutting to picture. This is a fundamental obstacle here as loads of the pre-written score don’t necessarily cut to the images, but they are shoehorned in there anyhow (one sequence at a soccer game with a jaunty, acoustic romp is just utterly puzzlingly and reeks of amateurism). Murdoch’s idea of a musical sequence is generally the camera swaying side to side with the actor as he or she stares into it for an ungodly long time, never breaking eye-contact and making you feel really uncomfortable. (We won’t even really get into what appears to be obvious budgetary issues, which suggest they had enough for catering, location, basic lighting and that’s about it).
While “God Help The Girl” isn’t quite as twee as you might expect—there’s no scene with the teenagers of the film rolling down grassy hills while giggling—there is a canoe day-trip for no particular reason and a few 8mm musical montages of the gang wearing striped shirts and cute hats while playing with umbrellas. The visual schoolgirl trope and Parisian style fetish that has adorned the covers of almost all Belle & Sebastian covers are also in evidence as well, with all of these things often shot through Instagram-esque filters.
Co-starring Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Pierre Boulanger and Cora Bissett, the crucial element of chemistry is all but absent too. While a few songs are as top notch as anything Belle & Sebastian has ever written (and therefore make their sequences much more tolerable), “God Help The Girl” is never as irresistibly tuneful as it should be and, given the affected milieu, some songs sound as obnoxiously grating as the worst version of what Belle & Sebastian can be. A major gaffe, “God Help The Girl” finds a great artist taking on a huge challenge and stumbling painfully on its ambition almost every step of the way. [D+]