Saor Alba Gu Brath!
All Hail the Scottish Musical, Starring an Aussie and a couple of English kids
God Help the Girl
Written and Directed by
My heart writhes with the sadness of defeat. A hopelessness shrouds my moods, pricking my beastly anger like a mischievous sibling in the backseat of a minivan. My mind rests in an abandoned lot amid the offal of dreams slaughtered in the abattoir of pragmatism. ‘Tis a sorrowful affliction trammeling body and soul.
I think I know how Morrissey feels.
“If only I could offer my consolation to the victims,” passes through my head as I frantically seek a remedy.
It’s no use.
I sit here in the subtropical sauna of my true homeland, thinking distant thoughts of a distant land, gob-smacked by reality’s hooligan who bluntly reminds me that my notion of the land formerly known as Caledonia, Gael, Alba, and the land of Picts, is pure fantasy.
“Yuv never been thar, ya twat,” he winces as if I’d punched his chubby unshaven cheek.
It is true, but I must play the contrarian.
“I’ve seen it at the cinema and on television. I’ve read the stories and imagined heartily inhaling the frosty air of its lofty latitude,” I insist.
55 degrees North. Aye! It baffles we mere mortals here near the 32nd parallel. The near endless days of summer and the brooding darkness of winter are beyond our minds.
“Yate no mar,” he growls.
He’s got me. “Yes. No more,” I answer.
I surrender, telling him I’ve priced air tickets to Glasgow, but have gotten no closer than 30,000 feet above the “Narth” of England on the way back to Houston from Paris, and I could see nothing but gray clouds below.
“Thar!” he declares, dismissing me with the wave of a pale pudgy hand as I watch the back of his bristly head bouncing back toward his sectarian district. I never inquired as to which sect. Was he papist or no? Whichever, he’d certainly stop by the pub for a pint and to catch up on the latest SPL action, and, cough, cough, rule Britannia, the EPL. I think he wore a red Man U shirt, but I was too busy watching the spittle spray from his teeth to make certain.
It has been two days since the dream of the Saltire flying over Edinburgh drifted away like so many crumpled shopping bags on a highland wind. Only 45% of Scots said “Aye!” to “Saor Alba gu brath!” (A free Scotland forever). Just a handful of urban councils- Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, etc. – 5 councils total, boasted a majority in favor of severing ties to London and the establishment of a Scottish nation. The remaining 27 still reverberate with a resounding “No!” Despite the sparks of excitement for Yes! leading up to the vote, it turns out that most Scots don’t mind the dreaded shackles of Westminster and the cruel neo-liberal fist of David Cameron. For the the die-hard 45%, the “Aye or Die!” slogan still beating in their hearts, the promise of a petrol-driven Social-Democracy will remain but a vision taunting them from across the North Sea.
It has been one day since Alex Salmond, chairman of the Scottish National Party, resigned as Scottish First Minister, disappointment dripping from his trousers as tempers flared on the streets of Glasgow, a city already madly divided along Protestant-Catholic/Rangers-Celtic lines. The Union Jack remains the official banner of the small island expanse that gave us William Wallace, Sir Sean Connery, Rod Stewart, and of course, the greatest band to ever bless the pop landscape – the Bay City Rollers.
I take a deep breath. “Sigh…”
But all is not lost, friends of thistle.
Please let me report with alacrity that it’s not all rending of garments and gnashing of teeth for those who prefer “A Flower of Scotland” to “God Save the Queen.” An independent spirit thrives in the vibrant pop scene of Glasgow, or at least it certainly looks so in Belle and Sebastian front man/songwriter Stuart Murdoch’s first cinematic foray, God Help the Girl, a whimsical coming of age story that mixes the sweetness of Gregory’s Girl, the random bursts of song of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, and the city as dramatis personae of Amelie (Glasgow is drop dead gorgeous in the summer sunshine, and still so in cloud cover), with small doses of Girl, Interrupted for gravitas and Umbrellas of Cherbourg for sophistication. Murdoch’s film may not be a triumph of thematic heft a la Citizen Kane, but it certainly gets copious style points much like the aforementioned films and, I dare say, Godard’s Band of Outsiders and, naturally, A Woman is a Woman, the Frenchman’s witty turn at musical opus. Murdoch’s nods to French New Wave pop up all over this film like wild mushrooms in spring.
God Help the Girl opens with Eve (Browning, an Australian, looking a bit like Godard muse Anna Karina at times here- and please don’t mention the Twilight films, we’re quite over it), a solemn lass in her late teens/early twenties, fleeing a mental ward on the outskirts of Glasgow where she’s being treated for anorexia, for some fun in the city centre. There, she meets the charmingly goofy James (Alexander, a less neurotic and very English, not Scottish, Woody Allen) on the stairway of a bowling alley/club moments after his band, the cheekily named James VI, melts down before it can even get through the opening chords of its gig. Eve wakes up on James’ couch the next morning after some sort of “episode” wondering where the hell she is and how she got there. Despite this rather awkward introduction, and an equally strange subsequent encounter, the two recognize a kinship between them and drift into a band together, taking James’ dreamy music pupil, Cassie (a delightfully childlike Murray who hails from Bristol), along with them.
The story isn’t so much plotted as bound together by buoyant scenes of giddy fun (oui, comme la Nouvelle Vague). The film bounces from song to song, gradually unveiling the budding friendship among the three as it evolves into a bond while a storm churns within Eve as she struggles not only with her debilitating illness, but the overwhelming sensitivity that drives her musical talent.
“We’re a band now. This is what bands do. This is band shit,” declares the Bowie-obsessed Cassie during a day-trip kayaking the Glaswegian waterways with her two buds, where the Anglo-Scottish divide gets a chummy send up along the banks in the form a few amorous lads who have taken a fancy to the spindly Cassie.
Indeed, it is “band shit” and Cassie is as much gamine as leggy peroxide sprite. Her presence serves as a fun house mirror and part-time Greek chorus for the Eve/James friendship, and what may well be the rumblings of a very reluctant romance. It’s hard to decide whether Cassie’s “coming out of her posh girl shell” song, “I Just Want Your Jeans” or Eve’s soul-baring “Musician Take Heed” is the show-stopping gem of the film. Both heave enough stark beauty to stand out as singular works in themselves.
The songs, written by Murdoch, are mostly of the catchy twee variety – save the above two – that made B&S an international pop sensation, and the three tumultuous little souls looking to “plant their flag on the timeline of pop music” are more than just identifiable, they’re downright adorable. This is a captivating film full of those quirks, behaviors, quaking uncertainties, and soaring exuberance that anyone who was a musician, or wannabe musician, or any kind of artist or wannabe artist, during their early adulthood will surely recognize. For those over thirty, don’t be surprised if you get a bit misty-eyed whether you’re standing in the pissing rain by the Clyde or the oppressive sunshine along the Pedernales.
3.5 stars out of 4
God Help the Girl is currently available for download at vimeo.com for $14.99 USD. It can also be rented for $6.99 USD.