When Belle & Sebastian, the Glaswegian indie group, formed in 1996, they were quick to attract a devoted fan base. Part of the allure was their impenetrable mystique. The band didn’t give interviews and they didn’t do publicity shots. All that curious fans had to go on were the stories in their songs—wry, whimsical numbers about sinful schoolgirls, quirky misfits and teens in-and-out of the closet. Plus album covers that, with their Smiths-esque photos of vulnerable, doe-eyed youths, could have been film stills from kitchen-sink dramas.
Eventually, the members of Belle & Sebastian stepped into the spotlight. They started touring regularly and doing publicity. But Stuart Murdoch, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, has, in a way, stepped back into the wings with his latest project—a feature film called “God Help the Girl”. The project has been a decade in the making. It began as a song, then became a band and now the film. But the idea first came to Murdoch as a melody. This he expanded into a wistful yet upbeat tune, one that sounds like the jaunty pop of later Belle & Sebastian—until you hear the vocals. They’re not Murdoch’s. They belong to the “Girl”, a fragile yet flinty creature whose character Murdoch fleshed out with an album’s-worth of material. He formed a girl-group to perform the songs; they went on tour in Glasgow, London and The Hague. Meanwhile, Murdoch turned the Girl’s story into a screenplay and directed the film using the album as its soundtrack. “God Help the Girl” won an award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It will be in cinemas from next week.
The Girl is Eve: devastatingly pretty, but anorexic, depressed and hospitalised. To cope, she starts writing songs. Through her music, she meets James (the loner) and Cassie (the ingénue). “God Help the Girl” is a story about the redemptive power of music—familiar territory for Murdoch. And it’s pretty much how you might expect a Murdoch film to look. There are cardigans, vintage dresses, fringes and exposed knees. It’s almost as if Murdoch has taken the kids from the Belle & Sebastian album covers, his silent muses, and breathed life into them. Letting them sing.
Murdoch is a fine storyteller, but it’s one thing to write captivating three-minute vignettes, and another to write a feature-length film. The characters are thinly sketched and the narrative is familiar, even if the ending has a surprising ring of truth to it. Murdoch’s songs, though, remind you what made Belle & Sebastian so good in the first place: uplifting strings, jangly guitar, piano melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place in an episode of “Peanuts”. Plus lyrics just dark enough to throw some shade on all that twee. “God Help the Girl” isn’t cinema, it’s an extended music video. But for Belle & Sebastian fans, or those who just want 90 minutes-worth of winsome song-and-dance, that’s no bad thing.
God Help the Girl opens in Britain on August 22nd and in America on September 5th
Above Fragile yet flinty Eve (Emily Browning) with James (Olly Alexander, left) and Cassie (Hannah Murray, right)