Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch Talks Pop Music, Inspiration, and His Directorial Debut
"There's no avoiding trouble in this world if you want to make something," Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch says about making his first feature film. "But it's worth it." And God Help the Girl, the delightful musical he wrote and directed, certainly took a lot of work to become the bundle of joy it is today.
In fact, the gears have been turning to make Murdoch's passion project for much longer than one might expect. With the script and songs ready in 2009, Belle & Sebastian released an album of the same title featuring a group of female vocalists performing the tunes, regardless of the fact that they planned on utilizing those songs for a film. "It was always going to be a film, but I wanted to make a record separately from the film. I wanted to get the music right first," he explains, and it's something that served him well.
While the '09 album and the film's soundtrack share plenty of similarities, it's clear that the tunes were meant to be accompanied by the images on screen. The lyrics may provide audiences with a sometimes-twee, sometimes-melancholy tale, but actors Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, and Hannah Murray were essential to showing these budding musicians trying to make it as a band.
Where some performances are as beautifully blocked and choreographed as any stage musical you can imagine, others come off with a carefree and playful spirit; "I'll Have to Dance with Cassie" and "Musician, Please Take Heed" are two in particular worth noting. Murdoch claims these shots were tougher to handle. "You just had to shoot fast, hopefully see what came out and put it together in the edit."
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The resulting old-school pop musical aesthetic is likely reasons why many have taken to comparing God Help the Girl to works of the French New Wave. Comparisons to Jacques Demy, while appropriate, are especially amusing considering Murdoch's reaction to them.
"It's curious because I've never really watched any Jacques Demy films," the director admits. "Every girlfriend I ever went out with always tried to make me watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and I never wanted to see that film."
If anything, it was actually a surprising television series that proved a bigger influence to him than New Wave filmmakers, although he does admit to loving and finding inspiration in Godard's Une femme est une femme. "I would look to other places for influence, inspiration, and guidance," Murdoch says before revealing his biggest influence: Seinfeld.
"Well, I love Seinfeld and watched it all the time. It's all about the characters, their little gang, and they have this camaraderie, y'know? I thought, 'I want my gang to be like Seinfeld. I want to live in a Seinfeld world.'"
But where that series is much about the laughs, God Help the Girl kicks off in a rather dark place, and is unabashedly honest in order to connect with its audience. From the very start, the film's protagonist Eve (played by the ever-talented Browning) is struggling with depression and an eating disorder, and it's not something portrayed as casually or as exploitatively as many modern films are wont to.
"She has certain issues and overcomes them in the film, but this is something that could happen to anyone," Murdoch says about the character. "That age is a difficult time and people spin-off in all sorts of crazy directions. On the surface they seem okay, but underneath people don't know what the hell is going on. Sometimes things don't work out until much later."
And the music in the film, while heavily optimistic, also dives into these emotionally-charged depths that pop music should explore. "Your songs are depressing and self-centered," one character tells Eve as negative criticism, but Murdoch believes genuine emotion should be praised in music.
"With pop music, people automatically empathize with the character who's talking," Murdoch elaborates. "Whether they're in love, or they're depressed, they put themselves in that situation. They empathize, and they feel like somebody is talking for them."
God Help the Girl may not speak to, or for, everyone that goes out of their way to watch it, but it's a lovely depiction of young adults trying to make a band that will "leave a small flag in pop history," as Alexander's character James strives to do.
Belle & Sebastian's latest tour brings them down to Miami on the last weekend of September. Stuart Murdoch admits the close parallels to his own band's journey to success, starting from the beginnings in 1996.
"You wake up every morning and you want to set that flag, you want to make a great album." Nowadays though, he's got plenty of those, along with a great movie to accompany them.
God Help the Girl opens Friday, September 26, at O Cinema Wynwood. Visit o-cinema.org.
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