Craig Zobel (Compliance) Talks Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl

Can musicians successfully make the leap to film? The promising debut feature from Belle and Sebastian's lead singer makes the case that they can.

I am a big Belle and Sebastian fan. I’ve consistently returned to the band’s catalog for inspiration, or when I’m simply not sure what else to listen to. I’m even proud to say — though I never met any of the band — that over a decade ago, I had a minuscule role in the music video for “Dirty Dream #2” (that’s me jumping up and down about 50 seconds in, helplessly upstaged by Elf Power’s Andrew Rieger pouring milk all over himself).

The band’s frontman, Stuart Murdoch, is one of the best wordsmiths we’ve currently got. His lyrics have a blend of light wit and dark pathos that’s special and in short supply. The fact that he’s not just a poet — the songs themselves are equally impressive and powerful constructions, wildly ranging from baroque pop to psych-rock to modern techno-esque dance — makes Murdoch’s work that much more impressive.

It’s hard not to mention the narrative nature of Murdoch’s songs: almost all of them easily come off as short stories, and they are all incredibly visual. I mean, there’s already been a thick graphic novel made entirely out of Belle and Sebastian lyrics…. It’s no surprise that “direct a feature film” was on Murdoch’s bucket list. It’s obvious he loves movies; he’s been writing coming-of-age scenes his whole career.

I must admit, though, that prior to watching God Help the Girl, I was nervous. For one thing, I don’t get musicals and never have; I always feel like I’m outside looking in on them. For another, I already knew this collection of songs — they were all released as a side-project album, also called God Help the Girl, in 2009 — and I hadn’t connected with them as much as the “official” B&S catalog. Murdoch’s words coming from another person’s voice just didn’t resonate quite the same.

But most of my nerves came from the fact that I’ve been burned before by musicians I admire picking up the camera. I was not into Neil Young’s Greendale, and my fandom didn’t (couldn’t!) survive Wayne Coyne’s cloying amateur sci-fi, Christmas on Mars, a few years ago. I am such a fan of Murdoch that I didn’t want this movie to ruin my appreciation of his work. However, I’d agreed to write about it here (mostly as a way to ensure I actually watched it).

The plot of God Help the Girl goes roughly like this: Eve (Emily Browning) is a young woman who escapes a mental hospital and immediately ends up at a rock club. There she meets James (Olly Alexander), a folk singer who immediately falls hard for her. She invites herself to be his new roommate. They begin a painfully platonic friendship in which they listen to the Left Banke and start realizing they have an easy time making music together.

Eve tags along to a guitar lesson James is giving to the ditzy but lovable Cassie (Hannah Murray), and in a “classic musical”-type moment, they realize they’ve become a band. One that just might make it! A Swiss-German punk singer becomes another suitor for Eve’s affections. James is lovelorn. A handsome male groupie might like Cassie. They all start rehearsing for the big show.

Everything is handled in a casual, confident vérité style. Dance routines are shot with the calculation of a music video, but with very naturalistic lighting and effortless performance. It’s sort of a sibling to Once, the Irish film by John Carney — as in, “It’s more hip and cool-looking than a typical musical, but it’s still a fo-realz musical… aaaand it’s about musicians at that!” Once won an Oscar, though, and I’m pretty confident God Help the Girl won’t.

That said, after seeing the ambition and confidence of Murdoch’s effort, my nervousness has been completely calmed. The music somehow popped in a way that it didn’t as a concept album, and the actors inhabit their own versions of the songs. And describing this movie in terms of its plot isn’t really fair to it — this experiment wasn’t really about plot. To be honest, there are many times where it devolves straight into a music video (although a well-shot one). And it’s valid to say that sometimes it’s a bit precious… but that’s Belle and Sebastian. It’s sorta part of the point.

It’s exactly what a fan would expect, and it does achieve what it sets out to do. Of course Eve is a depressed anorexic. Of course James is a (non-swimming) lifeguard. The band’s first show is playing for an old ballroom dance class. There’s a scene where a bunch of young women play soccer like the stars of track and field they are. It’s the “now that character is always gonna look like that in my head” thing you get when you see film adaptations of books you already loved. For me, Emily Browning is retroactively going to turn into that morose schoolgirl making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay. But I’m OK with that.

Thing is, I think Murdoch knows what he’s gonna get as far as critique. And he’s doing it anyway. There are hundreds of little beats which I felt were offered up with a healthy wink, like two indie rockers both taking off their horn-rimmed glasses before they have a fistfight (and really, they just end up slapping at each other). Or a scene where James admits he wants to run for city council and Eve says, “No one’s gonna vote for you, James. You’re too… feminine.”

Sure, it has a lot of moments just tailor-made for cute girls to run down cobbled streets clutching their interesting hats. But it’s all done with a soft, dry humor that’s less Judd Apatow, and way more “British” than I’ve seen in a while (like Peter Sellers, or maybe more accurately, kinda Ringo Starr — which I mean as a compliment).

I say this in defense of the film, because some of the early reviews have been of the “don’t quit your day job” variety. And though I’m an unabashed fan and willing to forgive more than others, I still think that is a lazy and damaging critique. Look, the acting is genuinely good: the leads are all funny and emotive and well cast. The shot selection is thoughtful, and the mise-en-scène is great. The movie’s probably too long, but that’s pretty excusable from a first-time filmmaker. Murdoch’s a good director.

To my mind, the problem/issue/trick with God Help the Girl is that it’s a musical. As it struggles with getting in and out of the musical numbers (the terrible problem built into the genre), it becomes satisfied with just looking and feeling like a real movie. But under all that, Murdoch knows what he’s doing with the camera, and it seems he knows how to get a performance. It’s just that the genre — and specifically this “realistic” version of the musical — doesn’t naturally reward those elements.

If Murdoch didn’t have the musical numbers to deal with, I could see him making some really interesting shit. That’s why the negative reviews are so disappointing; they might create doubt and prevent Murdoch developing into a truly interesting voice. I worry he might just look back on it merely as “a thing I tried out for a minute” and never make another movie.

Late in the film, James argues with Eve about her recording an album. She doesn’t see the point, saying they are the only people who want to hear it. James immediately has an answer, saying, “Well, what’s wrong with that? You can’t make records for anyone else. I don’t care if we made a record and nobody bloody listened to it! As long as it was the record we wanted to make!” I imagine this scene (consciously or not) as Murdoch struggling with what he knew he was walking into regarding the film’s reception. Sometimes, though, all it takes is a small number of fans in order to keep going. (This film itself was financed primarily via a Kickstarter campaign.)

I hope that enough fans and funders support Stuart Murdoch the filmmaker. I could see him evolving into a contemporary of Richard Ayoade and Peter Strickland — one of these super unique voices coming out of the UK right now (all supported by that country’s National Lottery film funding program) — doing more cool and progressive movies than are sadly even possible over here in the US.

I’d like to see him experiment and succeed with film just like he did with his explorations into things like electronic music. I don’t want him to simply stick with his day job. But I do want him to put musicals behind him and try his hand at a funny little drama for his next film project. It’d be great. Use Browning again; she’s a natural fit and has real talent. Heck, maybe it should even be a limited TV series. Let him make the short stories he’s been writing his whole life….

Craig Zobel’s debut feature, Great World of Sound (2007), won Breakthrough Director at the Gotham Awards, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards. His second film, Compliance, premiered at Sundance 2012, and won a Special Jury Prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Actress Ann Dowd was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards and Critic’s Choice awards, and was named Best Supporting Actress of 2012 by The National Board of Review. Craig’s most recent film, Z for Zachariah, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine and Margot Robbie, premiered at Sundance 2015 and was released in the U.S. by Roadside Attractions to strong reviews.