Though God Help the Girl involves the formation of a band, it is much more of a musical than that premise suggests. John Carney’s Once, similarly low-budget and charming accented, toyed with how much of a musical it could afford to be, to great effect; recall the beautiful scene of its heroine singing along to her Walkman as she walks down the street at night — the backing track of her disc bleeding onto the soundtrack. When Carney repeated his formula for Begin Again, part of that movie’s mainstreamization involved making sure the music was non-integrated and performative, rather than anything even slightly resembling a production number.
God Help the Girl, the new film by Belle and Sebastian mastermind and first-time writer-director Stuart Murdoch is, however improbably, the best movie musical I’ve seen in years.
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TURAN: Yes, boys meet girls and a variety of romantic things and dodges take place. But the heart of this film is elsewhere. "God Help The Girl" is a story of three young people who join forces to make music, not love, during a magical Glasgow summer. It's a film that believes in the gift of friendship and insists that music can well and truly save your life. And did I mention all those great songs? In desperate need of some kind of help is Eve, played by Australian actress Emily Browning, introduced sneaking out of her room in a suburban Glasgow mental health facility. Eve's life and her songs are interchangeable. Everything important she's thinking is destined to come out in the music she writes.
Still, those are extreme examples. To surpass Rock of Ages as a musical is like surpassing Transcendence as science fiction. What further unifies the pseudo-videos of God Help the Girl and keeps them feeling like an anthology of Belle and Sebastian shorts are their point of view. As an integrated musical, the movie needs not explain where its music comes from, though sometimes it kinda-sorta comes from the characters playing music onscreen. The easy out would be to say that the more fanciful aspects — the props on Eve’s train ride; the psychiatrist coat she dons for “The Psychiatrist Is In”; the choreography no one seems to have worked out ahead of time — come from Eve’s troubled mind, but the movie thankfully avoids Rob Marshall-style bending over backwards to explain away its genre. The songs happen, with and without instruments, because it is a musical. Eve’s point of view (and, to a lesser extent, the compatible but separate points of view of James and Cassie) explains the sensibility of those musical numbers, which ranges from whimsy to longing to worry to joy, sometimes within the same song. The visual interpretations of these songs, then, complement the characters and bring us further into their world. They express something besides the song itself.