Sunday, August 23, 2015

"God Help The Girl": Musical Style Over Textual Substance

Now Available on DVD

If you are at all familiar with the musical works of Belle and Sebastian, then you likely realize that frontman Stuart Murdoch is a hipster’s hipster.  And now, based on his solo album of the same name, he has written and directed God Help The Girl, a deliberate homage to the experimental films of the 1960s and the pop musicals of the era.  The result is equal parts amateur and inspired, uneven and energetic, inherently flawed yet enjoyable all the same.

This is the story of Eve, the eponymous girl who loves music so much that she lets her life fall into disrepair and ruin, letting depression overtake her as she neglects her body and self-care.  Against the advice of her therapist, she leaves her care facility to shack up with James, a wannabe musician who gives music lessons on the side.  Along with Cassie, one of his students, the trio decide to form a band, with Eve as the frontwoman and lead songwriter.  Meanwhile, though, Eve’s mental health issues are ever lurking in the background.

Now, what’s really intriguing about this film is that it is very unapologetically about the music first, and the plot second.  Characters will burst into song and play instruments for seemingly no reason at all other than to provide a few minutes of music video, simply shot with minimal effects of the variety that one would have expected in Hard Day’s Night, this film’s obvious chief inspiration.  Eve often looks directly into the camera as her haunting melodies pour from her lips, intentionally breaking the illusion of characters in a story in order to communicate directly to the viewer.  This is very reminiscent of French New Wave techniques that pushed the boundaries of cinema in the 1960s, and it’s kinda neat to see them used here.

However, the main problem is that Murdoch’s fascination with technique and music leaves his story and characters in a bit of a creative rut.  To draw another Beatles-inspired parallel, God Help The Girl has a lot of the same problems as Across The Universe, letting the music dictate how the mood and plot should go with little regard for story arc or tonal consistency.  It’s often easy to be confused about what is happening in a particular scene, why it is happening, or how it fits into the greater narrative, often because there is no point other than to see the song come to life.  It’s a film that pretends to be deeper than it actually is, with visual gags juxtaposed with deadly serious moments, and no natural build-up in between.

Still, I feel that looking for anything more than an audio-visual experience is asking a bit much from God Help The Girl.  This is, after all, a film adaptation of a musical album, so of course the above-mentioned flaws were going to be pervasive if the integrity of the music was going to be kept intact.  For what it is, I enjoyed this film, and I’ll likely pick up the album that was its source material.  Give this film a shot and see if you feel the same.

Has there ever been a happy medium between adapting music to the screen and having solid story and characters?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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