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Belle & Sebastian frontman's movie hits same notes as his music

'God Help the Girl' from Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch has similar wry and delicate touches as the band's music.

By Steven Zeitchik

9:00 AM EST, February 5, 2014

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When Stuart Murdoch, the frontman for the indie pop group Belle & Sebastian, was shooting his directorial debut "God Help the Girl," he decided to offer a cautionary word to the crew.

"I told them, 'You know this movie won't open, because Belle & Sebastian never opens,'" he said, laughing, sort of.

In its nearly two-decade history, the Glasgow, Scotland, act may never have had a chart-topping smash. But in a culture of tabloid ephemera and gone-tomorrow musical phenoms, Belle & Sebastian has managed something more elusive: longevity. 

Now Murdoch has translated the delicate and wry sensibilities that have made the band a long-running tastemaker favorite, known for its melodic nuggets about oddball children and sideways romances, to the medium of film. And he's done it in a fittingly Belle & Sebastian way. 

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"God Help the Girl" has a slow-burn quality similar to the songs Murdoch writes — it's an unassuming, unconventional musical tale that sneaks up on you. When the movie opens a prestigious section of the Berlin International Film Festival on Friday after a well-received premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month, it will mark the latest chapter in Murdoch's unusual career.

"God Help the Girl" centers on Eve (Emily Browning), a young woman struggling with depression and other disorders at a mental hospital. Soon she meets young neurotic singer-songwriter James (Olly Alexander), and the two form the kind of sweet, music-nerd bond you might find in, well, a Belle & Sebastian song. Navigating their crises separately, they eventually team up with another beautiful-but-lost young musician named Cassie (Hannah Murray) for a summer of pretty, indelible music and melancholic experience.

A coming-of-age tale that avoids many of its sentimental pitfalls, "God Help the Girl" also poses deeper questions about artists and artistry — the power of a pop song, the value of selling out — without ever feeling ponderous.

And though writing from the point of view of a young woman isn't a natural for the 45-year-old Murdoch, the musician based the story in part on his own life, particularly a period when chronic fatigue syndrome sapped him of energy and sidelined him for seven years. (It was during that period, ending in the mid-1990s, when he says he came into his own as a songwriter with the help, in part, of a faith healer.) 

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"It doesn't take much guessing to see me in the stories of the characters," he said. "The three pillars of the film are music, illness and spirituality, and those have been three pillars in my life." (As it does for James, churchgoing figures into Murdoch's life and music.)

The project has an unusual back story. Murdoch has been trying to craft a movie since an idea struck him in 2003 for a coming-of-age musical with original tunes. Though he hooked up soon after with the veteran Hollywood producer Barry Mendel, the soft-spoken man behind hits such as "The Sixth Sense" and "Bridesmaids," a series of development and financing hiccups kept the film from materializing. In fact, Browning and Murray said at the Sundance screening that so much time had passed after their initial auditions that they thought the film wasn't happening.

But Murdoch persisted. On various visits to Southern California, the musician would hole himself up in a motel room, banging and throwing out pages in equal measure, and shuttling back and forth to Mendel's Pasadena home. "It was clear he was already a great storyteller," the producer said. "It was the shape of the script we spent a lot of time working on."

Soon the songs Murdoch was writing for the film began to outpace that script. In 2009, Murdoch felt those songs were ready. So he recorded them with a series of female musicians, including the performer Catherine Ireton, and put them out as an album titled "God Help the Girl." He returned to the movie intermittently in the years that followed. 

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In the end, the film (it is seeking commercial distribution in the U.S.) was made on a down-and-dirty budget in about 25 days. Much of the music in it, even background tracks sung by other artists, was written by Murdoch to avoid expensive licensing fees.

Since the fall, Murdoch has been back in the studio with Belle & Sebastian, working on the band's first album in four years. He said that although writing and directing a film pushed him out of his comfort zone, he felt right at home making a movie about the canon of pop music and its questions of where one fits into it, which he said is equally resonant for young aspirants as it is seasoned favorites.

At Sundance, comparisons flew to John Carney's "Once," another tender dramedy about two damaged people coming together to make music, helmed by a director with U.K. rock resume. Murdoch bristles a little at that invocation — "Once" became a hit seven years ago, when the singer was in the early stages of writing "God Help the Girl," and he deliberately avoided seeing it. The Broadway hit a few years ago just taunted him, he said.

With his trademark mordant wit, Murdoch said he could have imagined a different outcome for himself on several fronts. "I think the best thing that could have happened to Belle & Sebastian is if I fell under a bus right after 'If You're Feeling Sinister,' " he said, referencing the 1996 album that put the band on the map among many music enthusiasts. "But something else happened." 

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It's a theme explored in the film too, as characters debate whether British icons such as Nick Drake became more famous because their stars burned so briefly.

But appropriately for Belle & Sebastian, those ideas never become overly self-serious; despite its preoccupation with subjects such as artistry and illness, the enterprise had a wear-it-lightly quality.

"It's just that sometimes when I'm walking along," Murdoch said, explaining his reason for making the movie, "I wish the world would turn into a great pop song."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com 

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