Twee. Twee, twee, twee, twee. TWEE. That’s the word that many use when discussing the Scottish indie-pop group Belle and Sebastian in a reductive and lazy way. Yet when evaluating the band, which is led by singer-songwriter and God Help the Girl director Stuart Murdoch, “twee” is one term you could to describe them; “pop-savvy” is another. Or “dry” or “tongue-in-cheek” are some others. You could even say that the songwriting is frequently shrewd in its depictions of human foibles (i.e. the youthful need to adopt possibly empty affectations, or the temptation to choose promiscuity over dedicated love.) Likewise, Belle and Sebastian’s music tends to be melancholic in way that’s symptomatic of someone who, from personal experience, is aware of how life can slip away and lie dormant. So a case for the band being something more-than-twee can be made to the pigeon-holers, who in all likelihood wouldn’t like God Help the Girl.
For the sake of accuracy, I should mention that GHtG isn’t a Belle and Sebastian project per se; it’s something that began as a 2009 concept album produced by Murdoch (the concept being a series of songs about young women that are sung by female vocalists and would constitute a hypothetical musical) and has become the subject of this review: a movie musical. Yet, as the film is very much an idealized roman a clef about Belle and Sebastian’s formation, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call GHtG “the Belle and Sebastian movie.”
Yet in spite of all of those potentially off-putting conceptual layers, I can say that “the Belle and Sebastian movie” is good. It avoids being like most film-debut vanity projects that famous musicians have made (i.e. inept, embarrassing, ill-advised.) and suggests that Murdoch may have a future as a feature film director.
Eve (Emily Browning) is a Glaswegian twenty-something beaut who is a singing/songwriting savant but has some disabling psychiatric conditions that force her to reside in a mental institution. Luckily, she becomes self-sufficient enough to venture out on her own and make friends with two simpatico people her own age: James (Olly Alexander), a stylishly nerdy and opinionated guitarist who aspires to be a pop music mastermind, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a bubbly gal whom James is teaching guitar. The three start band but trouble gets in the way, least of which is Eve engaging in a casual relationship with a lead-singer from another band despite James’s obvious romantic interest in her. Integrated into the narrative are musical sequences built around preexisting GHtG songs that reflect how the characters need to incorporate their pop music idealism into their reality, which can keep them grounded a little too much.
GHtG isn’t free from imperfection. Some parts are too languorous (particularly one sequence dealing with a canoeing trip), Cassie doesn’t figure much into the plot, spiritual matters (that are not unlike Murdoch’s actual ones) become a concern of the characters but remain too underdeveloped and vague to have any real importance. Some of the musical numbers feel obligatory, as if Murdoch wanted to use as many songs as possible in the movie but did so at the expense of structure. So, for a movie about characters who are sartorial to the hilt, it can feel loose, shaggy and untailored at times.
Nevertheless, GHtG is a jukebox musical from a distinct, well-curated artistic mind that has plenty of charm and panache. But the jukebox isn’t just loaded with previously recorded B+S songs. As he is clearly a devotee of 60s pop music, Murdoch also seems to be an aficionado of 60s cinema. There are moments in the film that are evoke the dance scene in Godard’s Bande a Part, or the opening of A Hard Day’s Night, or the harmonica-accompanied montages in Midnight Cowboy. Also, with by mixing real settings with a hyper-real and cinematic musicality, GHtG owes much to Jacques Demy’s cinema, particularly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There’s even a quick gag that references The Sound of Music.
Then there’s the personal component: Eve’s health issues are analogous to Murdoch’s real-life struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome during most of his twenties. Likewise, just as Eve becomes vital through her love of music, writing songs and starting Belle and Sebastian seemed to help Murdoch recover from his illness. Yet, even though Eve’s story ultimately doesn’t line-up exactly with Murdoch’s, the belief that art, as well as the act of collaboration, can restore a person is ever-present in GHtG. While this aspect of the film might be too veiled for any viewer that is unfamiliar with Belle and Sebastian’s history, I found it to be personally resonant as someone who was sidetracked by an illness in his twenties. At times it captures how it feels to put a handicap on your expectations and dreams at an age when you really shouldn’t but have to.
So I’m biased. But, like many great pop songs and albums, this movie is an expressive work that depends on specific personal biases that its audience may have in order to achieve its emotional intent. So if you’re someone who never felt and acted upon the need to fashion your life in an artful way in order to cope with the everyday, or if you’re someone who doesn’t know first-hand that all of the youthful privilege and promise in the world can be undone by premature inevitabilities, or even if you just don’t like Belle and Sebastian, then GHtG may not be your cup of “twee.” Then again, if it is something that might be in your wheelhouse, you could find it precious in the best and most meaningful sense of the word.
Likely to be my pick for most-underrated-despite-its-flaws movie of the year.