"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 musical he wrote and directed, certainly took a lot of toil to become the delightful work it is today.
In fact, the gears have been turning to create 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 those songs were slated for a movie. "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 2009 album and the film's soundtrack share plenty of similarities, it's clear the tunes were meant to be accompanied by the images onscreen. 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. 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."
The resulting old-school pop-musical aesthetic is likely the reason many viewers have compared God Help the Girl to works of the French New Wave. Comparisons to Jacques Demy, though 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, a surprising television series proved more influential than New Wave filmmakers, although he admits 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.
"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 was mostly about laughs, God Help the Girl begins in a rather dark place and is unabashedly honest in order to connect with its audience. From the start, the film's protagonist, a young woman named Eve (played by the ever-talented Browning), is struggling with depression and an eating disorder, and those emotional problems aren't portrayed as casually or as exploitatively as many modern films are wont to do.
"She has certain issues and overcomes them in the film, but this is something that could happen to anyone," Murdoch says of the character. "That age is a difficult time, and people spin off in all sorts of crazy directions. On the surface they seem OK, 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, 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 in music should be praised.
"With pop music, people automatically empathize with the character who's talking," Murdoch says. "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 who watches 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 takes the band to Miami the last weekend of September (read an interview with band member Chris Geddes on page 47). Murdoch acknowledges the close parallels to his own band's journey to success from its beginnings in 1996.
"You wake up every morning and you want to set that flag; you want to make a great album." Nowadays he has plenty of those, along with a wonderful movie to accompany them.