On DVD I finally watched God Help The Girl, the musical conceived by Stuart Murdoch, the primary songwriter of Belle & Sebastian. This project seemed to take a long time to happen. Looking it up online now, I see that the idea started in … 2004! Then the record LP of the songs was released as long ago as June 2009. I can recall the interest in that record; hearing it with uncertainty and disappointment; periodically going back to it and getting more from it. But that LP is now the best part of a decade old! Impossible how time passes now. But the point, I thought, was always the film. Apparently that didn’t start shooting till 2012, and wasn’t released till 2014 (which by the accelerated standards I’ve mentioned seems all too recent; I’d have guessed at 2011). Now that I’ve at last caught up, I offer these quick reactions to the film.
1: It’s not that good. The script is rarely inherently interesting. Few lines of dialogue sparkle. The acting is fine, in a way – the actors don’t seem damagingly ‘amateur’, or if they do, that is even good for the ‘realism’. But the words they have to say are not terrific dramatic dialogue, and the story that they play out lacks urgency and coherent drive. Here is an example of very bad dialogue. Cassie (Hannah Murray) has declared on a boating trip that she feels like Tom Sawyer, then she drinks some wine. Now she reports that she feels ‘Like Tom Sawyer … when he’s drunk’. The film lingers over this moment, irising out, making the woeful clunk of the line resound all the more. The prevailing idea that I’ve heard here and there that this is ‘am-dram’ or ‘Children’s Film Foundation’ fare, though not strictly true of the production values, is understandable.
2: There is a kind of underlying unspoken fact about this film, which perhaps extends to much that Murdoch has done but is far more emphatic here. Namely: it puts young, slim, attractive women (‘girls’, even) centre stage and photographs them admiringly. I am unsure what is the proper reaction to this. Part of me thinks, roughly, that it is ‘sexist’, an example of ‘the male gaze’ and so on. It is relevant that the girls typically wear stunningly attractive outfits which often display their long legs (and they never seem to wear the same outfit twice). Yet it is hard to substantiate this objection. I can easily imagine that the actresses would entirely reject it and say that it’s a great enabling film which valuably puts female characters at its centre and is thus actually some kind of pro-feminist work. I can imagine some female viewers saying the same. Fair enough. The trouble is, as a heterosexual male, I think I can see through Murdoch’s motives and tastes all too easily, because they are exactly the same things I am, let’s say, conditioned or predisposed to like and desire myself. If I happened to be in his position with the chance to make such a film, I think I would be embarrassed to do what he has done, because I would know that people would accuse me of indulging my own aesthetic tastes which are also, in this instance, libidinal tastes – and they would be right. So I find the film somewhat ‘suspect’ even as, or rather because, I think it is often good to look at.
3: There is one thing that Murdoch could have done to head this off or complicate matters – namely, put a less typically photogenic female character into it, amid the very photogenic ones. For instance he could have featured someone less slim and more fat. He hasn’t chosen to do that – in fact there isn’t a single young character in the film who is even slightly overweight. I don’t care about that particular point, or wish to prescribe what can be in people’s stories – maybe it’s important for people to be free to populate their stories as they want. But I do think it is circumstantial evidence that he has indulged himself by allowing his film to spend most of its time looking at girls he (like almost everyone else) thinks is attractive. And given that the film supposedly has some interest in people’s struggles and difficulties, maybe it would have had more purchase on these things if it had featured people who look less perfect.
Then again, maybe the point is that it’s a musical, hence something of a fantasia, in which daft things happen like a dog being sent waddling off down the street to bring his mistress to a disco, or a ludicrous chase scene in homage to the start of A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Why shouldn’t you populate such a film with the best-looking people you can find? Maybe Murdoch would say: ‘This is my film, it’s the only one I’ll get to make, so I’ll put who I like in it (literally) – if you have a more worthy agenda, make your own film.’
One other note on gender: it is slightly surprising how Murdoch doesn’t do more with the relation between the two female leads. He gives them little screen time alone together; in the couple of scenes they do get, there is some promise. The lack of more such dialogue seems a missed opportunity, also a dramatic flaw in that the relation between the two girls could be established more strongly. As it is, much more time is given to scenes between the female and male leads.
4: The central male character is James (Olly Alexander, who I am subsequently told is also in a real pop group). As is usual, the male collapses the idea about ‘everybody looking perfect’, as he mostly doesn’t look good at all to me. Actually there are moments when he does look OK, so maybe his unappealing appearance is more about skilful method acting and getting into character. But beyond mere looks, I’m afraid this character is very irritating. It doesn’t help that he has an English accent, despite supposedly being technically Scottish. His voice is unpleasant to listen to, not just for the accent but for the general whining, self-indulgent, ironic way he talks. Even when he delivers a line something like ‘I just wanted to plant my little flag in the timeline of pop history’, a sentiment I can actually understand having done it myself, it is ruined for me by his delivery. Admittedly I think all kinds of other actors would have been equally irritating in this role. Even a Scottish version of the character could still have been bad, but not this bad. But it is fair to report that he is by some distance the least appealing part of the film.
5: The film centres on Eve (Emily Browning) moving from a hospital (a specifically psychiatric hospital, I think) to form a band with Cassie and James, then, after a relapse, moving to London. The narrative is driven in some sense by the idea that Eve is a great songwriter: her songs are played by the band which becomes God Help The Girl (the name is taken up without any fanfare or discussion, despite an earlier discussion about the complexities of band-naming), and her two main bandmates revere her talent. The judgment is fair enough in a way: the songs are by Stuart Murdoch, who is a great songwriter, and if someone in Eve’s position came up with such a consistent body of work you would think it was remarkable. Of course this also means that the acclaim for Eve’s songs is self-congratulatory on Murdoch’s part, though that’s probably an inadvertent side-effect of the story he’s set up.
The move from ‘writing songs’ (which we see her doing a bit at a hospital piano) to ‘making a tape’ to ‘forming a band’ (just the three of them) might be plausible, but the further shift to the full band God Help The Girl is not. Drums, bass, guitars, strings, backing singers – in effect, I suppose, Murdoch has created a recapitulation of the expansiveness of Belle & Sebastian themselves. But the transition from bedroom composition to on-stage orchestras took Murdoch years. Indeed anyone who saw Belle & Sebastian from c.1995 to 1998 will remember them being shambolic in a way that was unique among major pop acts, and their transformation into a slick orchestral outfit that could play any of thirty songs at the drop of Murdoch’s hat – from c.2001? – was an extraordinary feat whose incongruity one tends to forget. It’s somewhat annoying to see the supposed ingenues of this film achieve this shift in a week or two. There is never any serious sense of ‘rehearsal’, or of the business of teaching a band to play your song – which is hard enough with simple songs, but with this complex compositions and arrangements would be like a full-time profession. It’s just a fantasy, it doesn’t matter. But it bothers me slightly, as the whole film is built around the musical journey, how Eve rises to the challenge of getting her songs heard – but it then doesn’t take these challenges seriously.
6: The other issue that drives the story is Eve’s illness. I’m not convinced that the film handles this well. She tells her doctor at the hospital that she has been unwell since she left home. Why did she leave home, and why not go back if leaving might have caused a problem? No indication except a couple of opening-credit seconds visually endorsing the line in ‘Act of the Apostle’ mentioning her parents’ tendency to argue. What is her medical condition? We can arguably perceive two things: depression and anorexia. Depression can be very bad, and is often treated with medication like the tablets Eve takes, but it isn’t usually a cause for hospitalization. And insofar as she has a depressed view of the world, it’s not made clear why. No significant issues in her past that might affect this are revealed or even mentioned. Anorexia is another (though presumably connected) matter. But the film doesn’t really tell us anything about it. If we start from the premise that this is a serious condition that needs sensitive treatment on screen, I don’t think the film performs adequately. It doesn’t show us the roots or causes of the condition, the reality of experiencing it, or any detail about how one recovers from it. Again – why should a film do those things? It’s just a musical. Right. But it’s a musical that has chosen (as it didn’t need to do) to focus on someone with a supposedly debilitating medical condition, then not really bothered to explore it properly and help the audience to understand what the character might be experiencing. In this regard the film fails. And this has a dramatic effect as the central character, her struggle, her ‘journey’ are all less substantial and credible as a result.
Perhaps one could even go further and say: It is often stated that anorexia and eating disorders arise in part from (mainly) young women feeling pressurized by images of women that they see in the media, in which slimness is valorised and ‘normal-sized’, ‘plus-sized’ women and so on are at a premium. If one accepts that premise, then what is the logic in making a film which is about anorexia but which also centres on two beautiful slim young women? Doesn’t this risk compounding the problem even while appearing rather desultorily to address it? Perhaps this charge would be unfair and excessive – but again, it arises from the fact that the film has very deliberately chosen to base itself on this medical condition, a choice that one might think would then bring responsibilities.
But as I say, my main problem here is just a ‘dramatic’ frustration: having founded its story on illness, the film doesn’t bother to represent it properly as part of what happens. It thus makes Eve seem merely glamorously moody and self-indulgent, which is probably not what people who are really ill seem like.
7: There is one other incongruity about this film that I have glanced at: none of the main characters sounds Scottish. Eve is Australian. Cassie is apparently English, with a family that holidays in Bordeaux. James sounds utterly English despite his weak claims to Scottish identity. It goes on: even the fourth most visible character, rock singer Anton, is described as Swiss German (but played by a French actor who doesn’t seem to be working especially hard at a Swiss German accent). This is very odd in a film so resoundingly set in Glasgow, made by one of the most Glasgow-centric figures in popular music of the last decades, who has featured bagpipes on a track and launched a set of Scotland’s For Me! merchandise promoting an album. If there was one thing you would have predicted about a B&S musical, it was – well, the first thing might be the prevalence of young women in Nouvelle Vague clobber, but the second would be lots of Scottish voices. The few Scottish voices in God Help The Girl are marginal: Eve’s doctor (Cora Bisset: seeming a more seasoned and substantial actor than most here, but unable to improve her clunking script much), the odd oldster, a trio of working-class ‘Neds’ seen on a canal bank. The occlusion of local accents is so thorough that one feels that there must be a deliberate strategy here – but what would it be? If it’s to show Scotland as more cosmopolitan, then middle-class English people aren’t going to be the most popular instances of that, and seeing them donning tartan to walk the hills probably doesn’t help. In fact their centrality makes the whole thing bizarrely akin to the phenomenon that Alasdair Gray was attacked for attacking: English people going up to Scotland as arts administrators and, in Gray’s view, lacking roots or commitment to the country. I don’t know the ultimate rights and wrongs of that debate, but can repeat: it is bizarre to see a thoroughly Glaswegian film, by a writer very patriotic about Glasgow, in which almost no-one sounds like they’re from Glasgow.
8: It’s evident that I was often doubtful about this film. And yet I don’t wholly dislike it. It has left something positive in the mind – in fact the positive feeling far outweighs the negative. I find that this can happen with some works of art, like films – that they leave a better aftertaste than seemed likely at the time. I think for me that even applied to Godard’s Bande a Parte (1963), which might be one of God Help The Girl‘s models. What are the good things in God Help The Girl? I propose four.
9: The story does somehow gain conviction in the last reel – when Eve decides to leave Glasgow for London, and, importantly, she doesn’t go for the romance with James. She says something like ‘The time for that was ages ago’, and brushes it off. I like this. It’s a healthy refusal of narrative expectations of the formation of the couple (which are explicitly raised by Cassie a couple of scenes earlier). The fact that Murdoch refuses this norm and sends his characters away down different paths, I find quite creditable. It allows for the last five minutes or so to have a different mood, somehow more mature and honest because not locked into ticking narrative traps.
10: The music is often very good. It’s dispersed through the film in different ways – often just playing tinnily on a background radio, for instance. It’s quite ingenious to set up a fictional world where all the music that plays is your own music. More centrally, of course, the songs are sung by Eve, and to a lesser extent Cassie and James. There are different sets of norms within the musical genre, with songs motivated by characters performing within the narrative, songs unmotivated by any realistic scenario, and slides from one to the other. This film has both of those options, but if anything is more reliant on ‘motivated’ song and less on random non-realistic bursts into song than I had expected; which relates of course to its being a ‘Let’s form a band’ story. I’ve said that the ease with which the full band comes together annoys me. But they sound good, and the songs they play here can make more sense here than they did on the soundtrack LP: ‘Come Monday Night’, ‘I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie’ (a soaring performance that I come to think is the high point of the whole film), ‘A Down and Dusky Blonde’, ‘I Just Want Your Jeans’. The unmotivated performances can also work: the chorus of ‘Pretty Eve In The Tub’ replenishes my respect for Murdoch. Perhaps one of the film’s greatest virtues, then, is making the album seem better than it did. I’d really like to hear it again now. I think I’ll buy it on CD. In fact maybe I’ll buy the other version, the Original Soundtrack version! Or both!
11: Glasgow. However bad the film gets, it is almost always taking place amid the beautiful brown tenements, green parks and grey churches of this city. For me this creates a slight dissonance, as the poverty of the dialogue makes me want to dislike the scene in a way that’s prevented by the richness of the setting. Put it this way, you could take the characters out of the film, maybe make just a little montage of the brief connecting shots showing trees and tower blocks, and you would still have something valuable. ‘Glasgow Plays Itself’ – in a way that, in begrudging mood, I feel gives the film too easy a victory. But then, who else but Murdoch has asked Glasgow to play itself this way? Frankly, in fact, without Murdoch’s bringing the city to a particular kind of attention, I myself would not have the familiarity with and love for it that I do, which now, absurdly, gives me a proprietorial sense that Murdoch shouldn’t be using it this way … No, that can’t be right – he of all people, besides Alasdair Gray, has earned the right to put the West End of Glasgow into art.
12. The first thing you encounter in the film, with the screen still black, is the voice of Stuart Maconie. Followed by the voice of Mark Radcliffe. This amazed me. I had been listening to them on the radio a few hours earlier; and the day before, and many other days before that. From an initial scepticism, I have developed a great affection for their reassuringly formulaic and predictable radio dialogue. And here it is, the first thing in the film! At first I imagined that this might be an extract from a genuine Radcliffe & Maconie programme, but soon it became apparent that it was specially recorded for the film: presumably improvised, playing themselves, from an initial theme. They sound terrifically realistic, like themselves. Yet, oddly, they are not playing themselves. The credits confirm something that is obscurely said during the film: that they are playing two disc jockeys called Findlay and Donovan. (In an extra wrinkle, the film is credited to Findlay Productions.) It’s problematically obscure during the film because the viewer doesn’t know that Radcliffe & Maconie have been renamed, and might well assume that Eve, when talking of the urgency of getting a tape to Findlay and Donovan, is referring to some other pair of people that we haven’t encountered yet. Possibly they’ve been renamed because they are playing figures of lesser cultural stature than they have in real life (though an early reference to being ‘in Glasgow’ gives the impression that they’re not local DJs but national broadcasters who are just visiting). But the viewer experiences them not as fictional characters, but as Radcliffe & Maconie! It’s all odd, a contribution to the paradoxes of the theory of fiction. But in closing, to put it simply: I can’t be entirely negative towards on a film that uses Radcliffe & Maconie this way.