Ask me for a list of my favourite things and three things will invariably find themselves near the top: film, indie pop, and musicals. Regular Ca Va Cool readers may remember my unabashed love for the quirky underside of Broadway or my yearning for certain bands to return to their indie pop roots. Needless to say, when I heard that Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch was working on a movie musical, I immediately set out to learn as much as possible about the project. Hours of tireless investigative journalism later (read: I googled it), here’s what I know, and what you should be excited to learn, about God Help the Girl.
About five years ago, while out for a jog, Stuart Murdoch first had the idea for a song entitled ‘God Help the Girl’. In his head, Murdoch could hear the tune sung by female vocals backed with strings. He realized this was something new, which would have to be separate from his songwriting work with Belle & Sebastian. During the recording and subsequent touring of Belle & Sebastian’s latest LP, The Life Pursuit, more songs came to him. He started to identify two or three main characters behind the words to the songs. Murdoch held auditions and internet-wide singing contests, searching for the voices to match these characters. He found three main vocalists: Catherine Ireton, Brittany Stallings, and Dina Bankole. Along with seven other vocalists, including Neil Hannon from the Divine Comedy and Asya from Smoosh, the trio recorded the soundtrack of a musical film which has yet to be written, much less filmed. The result is an album which shares the title of that very first song, set to be released June 22.
Murdoch is currently writing the screenplay to accompany his soundtrack, with plans to film sometime in 2010. Though the final script has yet to be written, we do know that God Help the Girl (the film) will be about a three-woman singing group, that it may end tragically, and that the music will be beautiful. God Help the Girl (the album) features two songs previously recorded by Belle & Sebastian (‘Act of the Apostle II’ and ‘Funny Little Frog’ from The Life Pursuit) and a host of new songs which showcase Murdoch’s original vision. Gorgeous vocals from Ireton, Stallings, and Bankole, along with sweeping orchestral accompaniment hint at the cinematic potential of the finished product. The remake of one of my favourite Belle & Sebastian songs, ‘Funny Little Frog’, allows for a direct contrast between Murdoch’s two musical minds, with the new female version trading in the the Scottish group’s indie pop jangle for 60’s-inspired strings and harmonies.
Murdoch’s new songs have the more plainspoken verse and back-and-forth lyrical dialogue which are necessary for musical storytelling, without dipping too far into the true Broadway-style musical where every word would be sung and the plot would be revealed through the lyrics of each song. This makes sense, considering Murdoch hasn’t actually finished writing the screenplay, but also puts me in mind of the film Once, another recent movie musical where the music came before the story. In that film, the songs were used to express the inner emotions of the characters, but since the characters were musicians themselves, the songs were presented in an organic way that fit the small, intimate feel of the film. The newly released video for the album’s first single, ‘Come Monday Night’, gives us a clue as to how God Help the Girl could both be similar to and differ from Once in this respect.
As in Once, the main characters are musicians, so that bursting into song could feel more realistic as the characters share their music with each other and the audience. During the dialogue portion at the beginning of the video, I thought that perhaps Murdoch had gone a similar route, with a stark digital filming style setting the scene decidedly in the modern day. However, the manner in which the song is presented is decidedly less organic and more fantastic, in a dreamlike sequence which others have already compared to the sound and style of early 60’s musicians like Sandie Shaw. I’m looking forward to seeing how Murdoch balances these elements of realism and fantasy in the final film, as this is often the most difficult, and the most rewarding, aspect of a successful movie musical. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with the soundtrack, which really is an artistic accomplishment in and of itself.