Monday 16 February 2015

Belle and Sebastian/Stuart Murdoch "God Help The Girl" (Film Review) (2014)

'Rollercoaster Ride' - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To Belle and Sebastian Is Available To Buy Now By Clicking Here

"God Help The Girl"

(A Film By Stuart Murdoch with musical backing by Belle and Sebastian)

"If you have to grow up sometime you have to do it on your own" or "I've been born for ages but now I'm turning the pages" or "We're beaming to Dudley!"

Musical soundtrack (performed by cast with * an archival Belle and Sebastian recording): I Suppose That Was A Prayer/I Dumped You First/Pretty When The Wind Blows/I Know I Have To Eat/God Help The Girl/The Psychiatrist Is In/The God Of Music/If You Could Speak/Catwalk Of The Dukes/Perfection As A Hipster/Fuck This Shit*/Pretty Eve In The Tub/A Loving Kind Of Boy/What Do You Want This Band To Be?/Come Monday Night/Collective Idiocy/I'm Not Rich/I'll Have To Dance With Cassie/Stalinist Russia/Baby's Just Waiting/Patrick Whistle/Musician Please Take Heed/I Just Want Your Jeans/Invisible/The World's Last Cassette/Down And Dusky Blonde/Dress Up In You*

Corn Gig setlist: Winter Wooskie/I'm A Cuckoo/Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie/Musician Please Take Heed/Photo Jenny/Piazza New York Catcher/Turning The Pages

Well, this is fun. We've never done an honest to God (help the girl) film review on this site before have we? Well not apart from the odd mini-DVD review we've done down the years for various Beatle films, Monkees TV episodes and somehow Stuart Murdoch's project deserved more than that. Goodness how it will fit in with the reviews we'd already written of the album (which is as different a beast to the film as The Beatles' 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band' LP is to the Robert Stigwood film) and I'm a lot less convincing talking about this sort of thing than music (I only sat through two film studies lessons before leaving for more useful and proper things that were much more likely to help with my employment - like a creative writing course for instance). The fact remains, though, that 'God Help The Girl' is such a crucial part of the Belle and Sebastian story (taking up five years of their lives now, off and on) that it needs to be told properly, not in a throwaway 'oh yes and there's also this' appendix, being so integrally involved with a (still fictionalised) account of how Belle and Sebastian came together (well ish, sort of). We also need to give you the plot for those who haven't seen the film yet, which is something we've toyed with doing for many a prog rock album but haven't so far because we figure anyone mad enough to click on a 7000 word review of said album will know it (though apparently we're wrong: lots of people have contacted us to ask if The Small Faces' 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' is as mad as we made out. Why yes, yes it is). However in a way it makes perfect sense that a novice is guiding through this film because it's all about novices. Well, novices with good ideas and talent - not so sure that applies here but never mind. I'm digressing again. Are all film reviews like this or just mine? Anyway...

The last six months have been ridiculously busy for a band who seemed on the verge of retirement last time we reviewed one of their 'new' albums. Worried that he'd 'lose' his band members to other groups and his audience to other bands, Stuart Murdoch effectively rushed the current Belle and Sebastian album through: a quirk of that record not coming out till January and only getting the film for Christmas means I haven't heard it yet except the opening flurry of singles. What I have heard - and the reviews I've read suggest it's more of the same as 'The Life Pursuit' and 'Write About Love', steps further towards the middle of the road and modernity, which as we've already discussed on this site is what the band probably needs to do to survive but it isn't what their fan base wants them to do (well, not us oldies anyway - lots of people seemed to buy the 'Funny Little Frog' single so somebody must have liked it). I fear from what I've heard that, yet again, Belle and Sebastian only make sense when going back to old ground - the love songs written between Murdoch and Isobel Campbell (who left in 2002), the brave hope of new tomorrows and how people cope once those tomorrows aren't there anymore.

'God Help The Girl', however, is refreshingly retro and makes no bones about being concerned with the past. No date is given throughout the film but it 'feels' early-to-mid 1990s in the way that 'Tigermilk' and 'If You're Feeling Sinister' both did (caveat: Eve's misguided boyfriend makes a joke about her having the world's last cassette tape which would suggest a later date - then again people were joking about my large cassette and vinyl collection the moment CDs arrived in 1987) so that doesn't completely nullify my dating . The film's main heroine, Eve, is effectively an innocent abroad - but abroad in this case means out of the room and asylum where she's been locked up for an unspecified amount of time; a throwaway line makes her out to be Australian and so more literally abroad. Since becoming anorexic (and, so some film reviews say, depressed although that's more of a secondary issue by the look of the dialogue)Eve has found that her world has collapsed since she left home and - reading between the lines - that she's too much of an 'artist' to be a fully functioning adult (we get very little about her back-story actually). Gradually forgetting to eat, she's ended up in a mental asylum where lots of well-meaning nurses with stern faces try to encourage her to eat, only to escape one day, attend a gig where a local band's two guitarists have a row and beat each other up on-stage (both hilariously taking off their glasses first) and one of them - James - gets talking to Eve and takes her to his flat when she collapses. He's a musician, she happens to write songs and he's currently teaching a promising young singer - bring it on! However Eve has a boyfriend of the pretty-but-pretty-simple Justin Bieber-meets-Red-Hot-Chilli-Peppers sort, he lets her down she lets James down and her world comes crashing down and the film ends with their tearful goodbye as she goes off to be a 'grown-up' and take a proper adult course. We won't spoil the ending, about whether they fit their last gig in or not, before Eve goes away, although suffice to say this isn't a film you watch for plot but character. As you'd expect from anything made by Stuart Murdoch, though most of the plot revolves around long walks, wasted summer days where not much happens and an awful lot of shots of scenic shots of Glasgow looking particularly beautiful. The theme of the film is a time when nothing in your life was sorted out and stuck in a strict regime just yet, when anything was possible and when music is the most important thing anyone could do with their lives.

Nobody says it here and Murdoch is careful to both change the gender and the illness of his main protagonist, but this is clearly his life-story writ large on screen, together with the usual quirks and, well, characters he's famous for giving his characters. In fact I'd go so far as to say it's the most personal creative project yet, telling the world stuff that was going on in his head that he wasn't ready to tell when 'Tigermilk' was being made and had forgotten for most of the past few albums. For those who haven't read our new expanded review of 'Tigermilk' yet here's the story: Stuart tried to go to university when he was 21, burnt himself out and fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome and ended up confined to bed for most of the next nine years. This is the story of what happened to him when he returned slowly to health, finding that he had a 'voice' for his songs (most of whom became 'characters' who'd lived in the Glasgow he'd known before falling ill because being confined to the same old four walls everyday let his imagination soar), meeting and falling for Isobel Campbell in a scene not unlike the meeting between Eve and James in the film (although neither were playing at the time) and enjoying the summer of his love when after nine years of nothing and silence his head was full and his imagination was overflowing. I too suffer from this horrendous illness (which is why I live my life through the careers and music of others - I'm too poorly to make music myself) and though scriptwriter Murdoch deliberately changed the story to Eve being anorexic (Murdoch later gave an interview claiming that this was for 'visual performances as 'shots of people sleeping wouldn't have been that interesting!') I absolutely see the parallels: Eve sleeps an awful lot throughout the film, often after a hard day of living the night before, nobody believes her or listens to her and everyone lectures her instead of helping her - she's obviously been through the ATOS disability scheme too. She often wakes up uncomfortably, the radio still playing through her earphones in her over-darkened room, music the only outlet from the outside world allowed in (that settles is - Murdoch comes in and checks in on me, angel style, when I'm asleep - there's no other possible explanation). Note too how out of touch with the 'real world' Eve seems to be (including - inevitably for a one-time bus driver trainee - a memorable scene of her riding on a bus, looking on in shock at the world around her moving; it's a subtle scene if you don't know about the illness and how rare it is to leave the house, but it's clearly there if you know).

Even the scene of her being told to keep up her 'pyramid' so that eating, sleeping and exercise can 'prop up' level two (a social life and work) and only then level three (arts and creativity and - curiously - 'morality') sounds spookily reminiscent of some of the tripe I was given (though like Eve's carers it's the paperwork not the people: they're not the monsters lesser writers would have made them and 'something to escape' - they clearly want her to get well, they're just clueless how). This is, of course, wrong: music is so integral to Eve's wellbeing because it isn't something she can switch on and off when she feels like it; it's a part of her that actually comes more naturally than eating and more effortlessly than sleep. Those of you who read my outburst about three years ago about 'why I write this site' will know my feelings on this (the biggest argument I ever had at school was aged eight refusing to put 'music' down on a list as a  'luxury' item during some God-help-the-teacher awful lesson about social science: to me it's always been more important than eating, sleep and shelter, the supposedly 'essential' items needed for life - I can cope without a house if I have to, will last a few difficult days without food and my illness means I often go days without sleep as it is but I cannot last any length of time without music, which is the equivalent of asking me to live without hope, or dreams, or escapism, or happiness, or beauty).

While it's not spoken out loud in this film (the sub-texts are part of what makes it so clever, a writing trait that's thankfully held over from the albums) but the biggest thing Eve needs to help her recover is to actually have a future to recover too; in this context it's a tragedy that see her leave on a train at the end of the film, her friendships and future apparently broken (this too is paralleled with Murdoch's decision to end his 'fun summer' and go back to university; his story turns out happily thanks to a brilliant music teacher, several like-minded classmates on a youth training course and a business studies project that sees him and his pals and an SOS to his girlfriend back home all getting together to make 'Tigermilk', one of the greatest records ever made by anybody anywhere - her story is open-ended, with success and failure equally likely). Eve does end up at the end of the film receiving the same treatment as Stuart, incidentally, when Eve visits the house of a faith healer who cuts her hair early on in the film and imagines a 'man standing over me - so I shut my eyes tight'; the filmic equivalent of 'The State I Am In's 'gave myself to God - there was a pregnant pause before he said 'ok'). Religion is a loose theme throughout the film, wrapped around the character's shoulders like a shawl (James' character goes to Church, Eve surrounds her cassette demo-tape with a drawing of a church and of course the project title: the hint is that God does help Eve but she has to work out what he wants her to do). Even James' flat looks remarkably like the one Stuart and drummer Richard Colburn shared during the band's early days when they worked as caretakers and lived on top of a Glasgow church.

Clearly there's a lot of fictionalisation going on here too and this is not a straight story: Murdoch is an excellent creator of characters, one of the greatest in fact (if he'd lived in the nineteenth century famous for caricatures  that would be him working with W S Gilbert satirising the MPs of the days as fairies or perhaps working with Charles Dickens as his editor) and there are lots of little quirks each has that help define them as characters. More than that, though, he seems to have split both his and Isobel's personality into three: 'Eve' is his artistic side coupled with her take-no-prisoners attitude and the moment she decides to suddenly become a 'blonde' at the end of the film (the beginning of the end, as she 'becomes' what others want her to be instead of her 'real' self) she even looks a little like Isobel. The almost equally wonderfully drawn 'James' mixes his athletic side (he's a lifeguard), slightly awkward physical presence and musical knowledge (which results in several excellent conversations about the chemistry of bands and what you need to be in one that sound very like the sleevenotes from an early B and S record; more of this would have been highly welcome; not to mention his excellent record collection still on vinyl), but Murdoch gives 'him' Isobel's side of the story - equally passionate about music but slightly left behind, a part-of-the-band-but-not-in-the-band and having to pick his life back up when he leaves, despite knowing it will never be the same. And then there's Cassie, James' still-at-school-pupil who falls into their older crowd remarkably easy for someone that age: she shares Murdoch's bubblier side, the part that talks to crowds nineteen to the dozen despite being intrinsically shy, the natural cute lead singer with the good looks (though the camera still doesn't quite love  actress Hannah Murray quite as euphorically as it does Eve, Emily Browning) but is also slightly clueless, out of her depth amongst crowds older than herself (how Murdoch must have felt finding his old friends of the same age had done so many extra years of living he never got to see). Cassie also shares a little something with Belle and Sebastian's original bassist Stuart David (the second member of the band, who joined before even Isobel): she's quirky and full of odd ideas yet always happy to fall in with what everyone else does (you can imagine her spending the rest of her summer before going back to school writing the sort of letters Stuart David once shared with future wife Karn, or the weird equally-fictionalised pen-and-ink drawings he made of how Belle and Sebastian 'really' formed!) Murdoch's writing means that all three are likeable and very different, the films seen from all three points of view along the way (James even tells Eve to 'go away' from his monologue scene as they try to say goodbye, a clever breaking of the fourth wall which says much about this film's playfulness).

For those who don't know, this project started life in 2003 - inevitably the moment when Campbell left the band and Murdoch wasn't yet ready to open up his vulnerable heart (the band will eventually delay this with the rather good pop album 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' in 2003 instead). Perhaps out of guilt at not using his missus' talents enough (Isobel's been far more prolific over the past decade than her former partner and had better critical acclaim of late) or out of a need to still hear her voice, lots of the new material Stuart was writing sounded like a girl's voice to him and much of it dealt with their shared past. The project was shelves while he worked out what to do with it, reviving it again in 2007 when the fuss over 'The Life Pursuit' and resulting tour had died down. Looking round for a singer and writing a first draft of the script, Murdoch toyed with the project across the next two years and persuaded the rest of the band to back a now extended cast of three singers (Catherine Ireton, Celia Garcia and Alex Klobouk) who sang the leads on the album. A single 'Come Monday Night' was released in May 2009 (it turns up right at the very end over the start of the final credits and had an exclusive B-side attached), a fourteen track album followed in June (which featured eight songs re-recorded for this soundtrack) , another single (a re-recording of 'Funny Little Frog' with another exclusive B-side, neither of which made the film) was released in July, a five-track EP 'Stills' followed in November (adding just 'The Psychiatrist Is In' to the film soundtrack) and finally a third single 'Baby You're Blind' appeared in May 2010 (the B-side was 'A Down and Dusky Blonde' - the A side has never been heard of again). With B and S busy or resting, these projects weren't promoted and none of them did very well - but then measuring releases by commercial success has never been the B and S way. Thereafter the project was put on the back burner while Belle and Sebastian wrote, recorded and toured 'Write About Love' (released at the end of 2010). The project also underwent a complete re-write, with several sub-sections taken out and others inserted, while Murdoch feebly tried to interest every one of the big cinema production companies to make it: nobody wanted to know. However just as 'Tigermilk' made pioneering use of the internet to sell copies before most people had any idea what it was or what it could be, so Murdoch turned early to the relatively new 'Kickstarter' project, with fans and movie-goers building up funds (rather sweetly one of their bigger backers even gets to introduce the band and hang around on stage for the 'premier' gig in Edinburgh as featured on the DVD).

Murdoch jokes during the 'introduction' of the film's premiere in Edinburgh  (as seen on one of the DVD extras) that 'you do all know that this is a musical, right? Because if I knew I'd want to leave - right now!' However we all knew that 'God Help The Girl' would be one of those films where the music plays throughout: Murdoch's songs have always been like film scripts anyway, full of visual clues and character enhancing phrases. We've already covered some of the songs used on our site already by reviewing the full album and two EPs released as 'God Help The Girl' in 2009. Being a Belle and Sebastian spin-off band, though, means that many of these fine songs ('Beneath My Umbrella' 'Stills' 'Mary's Market' and the glorious 'Act Of The Apostle' as released by B and S on 'The Life Pursuit' in 2006) aren't here. Luckily neither is 'Funny Little Frog', a great song (and still B and S' biggest hit at the time of writing) that always sounded wrong for this project. The music that does make the film is largely excellent. For instance 'I Suppose That Was A Prayer' captures Eve's escape from her mental and physical prison over the opening credits magnificently and sums up her character in one go: acting more confident than she feels, buying an Independent newspaper to make her look clever and desperate for new experiences. 'Musician Please Take Heed' heard during Eve's last breakdown (when James has learnt the truth and is hiding from her) is exceptional: this is Murdoch, older and wiser in his 40s trying to remember the first lesson he learnt from rock and roll and not to get too carried away, while simultaneously capturing Eve's new-born hurt and fury that James can get away with living a life separate from hers (even though that's exactly what she's been doing the whole time; this too sums up the 'hurt' situation of 'Pursuit' and 'Love' and especially 'I'm Waking Up To Us', the extraordinary EP announcement of the impending Murdoch-Campbell split released in 2001). Even Eve's decision to take along her wind-up gramophone to the river bank and spending hours working out what to play in order to wallow in her hurt is pure genius (if only she'd taken a book called 'The State I Am In' to read too for us fan completists, eh?!) 'Pretty Eve In The Tub' is weird, Murdoch doing Noel Coward but it works in conjuring up the pair's blossoming gentlemanly romance where both sides are too afraid to make the first move. The title track is a clever condensing song that sums up everything curious fans need to know about the style, mood and plot of the film: God help the girl - she needs all the help she can get, even from the unlikeliest sources. Finally 'Dressed Up In You' may have already been used by the band on the 'Life Pursuit' album here, but it's the perfect accompaniment to the end of the film: James, left sadly bidding goodbye on the station platform (till Cassie and bike come to his rescue) contemplating his empty and her bright future while it plays out in music over the credits ('Now you're an actress, though you're made of card - you couldn't act your way out of a paper bag!' 'I'm knitting jumpers' and 'We had a deal there - I thought that you would keep your word'. Suddenly this song becomes clear: we reviewed this song as if it was Murdoch singing to Campbell but it's actually her singing to him). Only one song fails and fails spectacularly: I didn't like 'The Psychiatrist Is In' on the record and I hate it in the film: Eve is afraid, only just out of her room for the first time and nervous of people - and yet she seduces the kindly boy she's just met? Hardly - even if Eve was desperate for attention she'd do something like fall in the swimming pool and make James rescue her before promising him a reward - stringing him along, in other words, until he falls for her and thinks it was all his idea; the Eve of the rest of the film would have the fire but not the motive to do this (even her dalliance with her 'other' bloke in the film seems out of character: while pleased at having bedded someone every other girl wants - a great boost to any ego - she'd have done so with more doubts and guilt than she does in the film, where she only regrets it when learning that the completely unsupportive twit didn't pass on her demo tape to his contacts like she asked - yeah, she's an innocent abroad and all that, but even she's not thick enough to think he ever would, surely?)

So, is this film any good? Largely, yes. We've been saying for a while now (since 'Fold Your Hands' in 2001 if you've been reading these reviews in order) that Murdoch had a game-plan in his sick-bed for how he dreamed his life would turn out. He never bothered thinking past that point because he never thought it would ever happen, so when life caught up with fiction he struggled to know what to do next - his songs get less, the rest of the band do more and the band sound changes (inexplicably from about 2006). We said on both 'The Life Pursuit' and 'Write About Love' that for all the really clever inventive decisions to go into new directions (some successful,, some not) it was the songs that returned back to those early days and looked afresh at Murdoch and Campbell's Summer together (either trying to recapture it, or seen as a distant memory, or spoken to a picture of 'her' in the present day and wondering what happened to her as per the 2006 'Dressed Up In You' that works remarkably well over the end credits) that were the most emotionally involving, the way B and S always used to be. However Murdoch clearly has been struggling to return to that theme as often as he wants: the band are older, their fans know the story and there are few angles he can get out of it now that we've gone from love to rage and betrayal to acceptance over the past few years. By making himself a 'character' (or three in fact) Murdoch has finally discovered how to best return to the year that influences him and excites him the most without having to do it as himself. You don't need to know or like Belle and Sebastian to enjoy this film. Anyone of any age who ever dreamed of doing something artistic that either took off or failed miserably will get something out of this film and like these characters (although no doubt the sniffy critics who think the band are 'twee' and middle-class will think the same about them; incidentally where does Eve get all her money in the film? We need a missing scene where she has to apply for her money to the DWP endlessly, be sent on random job centre courses despite being desperately ill and end up trying to decipher their weirdly worded letters in the middle of the night to work out whether she needs to do anything about them or not. Even James can't be that generous, especially when they 'fall out' - he's clearly a trust fund kid to afford a flat that gorgeous and with a conveniently empty room; he only works a few hour at the local swimming pool and as a council employee won't be earning that much).

What's more this isn't just a sad and serious film either: there's a life to this project despite the emotion of the script and the earnestness of some of the scenes, with Murdoch's comments that forming Belle and Sebastian 'really was like the comedy scenes in A Hard Day's Nights' coming over in the film too - in every giggled conversation, debate and argument. Music is a deadly serious business - but it also involves a lot of laughing, especially in the early days: just like 'A Hard Day's Night' I can so see youngsters who see this film unsuspecting leaving the cinema determined to start their own bands (maybe we'll even cover them at the AAA in the future, who knows).

The film works partly because of some cracking lines and tender scenes in Murdoch's script and partly because of the largely excellent musical score, but mainly because of the excellence of the cast. As anyone whose read our review of the three attempts to tell this story on album back in 2009-2010 will know, I was slightly worried. It's not that the original Eve (Catherine Ireton) is a bad singer: she's got a lovely voice and I'll gladly buy any future album she does, but she was too tough and not vulnerable enough for Murdoch's character, moving the band further away from their natural sound. Emily Browning is pitch-perfect, her wide brown eyes of innocence a nice contrast to her naturally charisma and flirting style with the other characters; you can well believe her as both the troubled friendless teen going through hell but too tough to say so, the struggling innocent so easily pushed into bad ways by forces beyond her control and the blossoming writer whose suddenly found a way to connect with the world and will do anything to get back on stage (oh alright then, it's not exactly a big secret: yes the band do get to play their gig!) Eve is also Murdoch's single best and most rounded character since the early days, at one with Photo Jenny, Lisa and Lazy Line Painter Jane, dancing to the beat of her own drum but with consequences this time round. Dare I say it, her comedy strops might well be an essence of Murdoch too, especially her grumpiness over Scottish weather. The camera loves her and her ever-changing face in the same way that the microphone loves Murdoch's voice; despite their near-enough 30 years age difference and sex change the two are believably, recognisably the same and she's a natural at speaking through his voice. Olly Alexander is the perfect Murdoch-style mix of energetic just-seen-the-world toddler and grumpy old man as James. Hannah Murray as Cassie doesn't get much to do but does it all with aplomb. All three are clearly going to be stars of the future, although they might never be lucky enough to get dialogue this rich again. Amazingly all three are unknowns, chosen by Belle and Sebastian after adverts placed in the acting trade magazines and their own website (from what I've read only Olly had even heard of the band before the audition or had any desire to go into music). The theatrical world owe Stuart Murdoch big time for finding three actors who will all surely be around for a long time to come.

However there's one major flaw with this project: the beats are all wrong. A lot of the time the film is simply rushing to a conclusion instead of spending time on the plot. This is annoying simply as a viewer watching events unfold: one minute the band are together, the next they're apart and meeting up again without any idea how long time has passed. It's the same problems a lot of new writers have: how do you keep having character enter a room and make it interesting? The answer is you don't they just magically appear, teleportation like, which looks good on the scripts but not in real life (Eve's many hairstyle changes - seemingly intended to showcase her desire to change her personality to 'fit in' - means you don't always recognise her at the start of a scene anyway). Eve's songwriting seems to disappear somewhere about the middle (a scene of her stressing over writing new material now that she has people to sing them - something she never ever thought would happen - would have been an apt and Murdoch-like touch I feel). The trio's backup band comes out of nowhere (well, actually one brief audition: B and S didn't get that much interest even when they let people know they might be on a real live record!) So does Eve's job - when did she have time to become a waitress (and how ironic is it that someone with an eating disorder serves other people food? Presumably she's hired because she's pretty and thin - coincidence or marked comment?) Weirdly none of the trio have a back-story involving family: Eve and James are forever calling on Cassie at home and she's always willing to run off with them (even threatening to climb out the window in one funny scene); it would have made the story even more poignant if Eve had received a postcard from home asking where she is and if she's alright, or if James' parents turned up asking when the rent is due and who is his new lodger who keeps making a mess of his bath, making him blush in the process or if Cassie had a fiery speech about being old enough to make her own mistakes and how she trusts her rather antiquated, properly brought up elder friends more than the idiots her own age (there's a scene where the trio are paddling on a canal where some passing boys from Cassie's school ask her to go out with one of them - while meant to show Cassie as innocent, it seems to make her woefully thick; surely one of them would have asked her out in school, where they could alternately laugh at her or show off to their friends depending how the conversation turned out). While both Chris 'Beans' Geddes and Mick Cooke make lovely audience-pleasing cameos in the film (Beans is the referee in the football match, with Mick at the back tutting and looking on - sadly most people are too busy gawping at DJ Josie Long in an excellent cameo as the captain of the mental asylum's team) and Stevie Jackson gets a random song playing on a radio during the scene in the clothes-shop (where Eve's nasty boyfriend gets her to try on lots of clothes that are just so not her), it would have been lovely to have everyone there. For instance, why aren't Belle and Sebastian themselves the backing band at the final gig? It's not as if they've gone out their way to find anyone the right age (and that is indeed Bobby Kildea on bass anyway). Did we not emphasise this enough earlier? 'The Psychiatrist Is In' is a truly awful song, at completely the wrong point in the movie (and turning Eve from victim to predator so quickly its in danger of making her whole character unravel - yes she is a predator in the sense that she's 'playing' her boyfriends against each other, but she shouldn't be aware she's doing it - it should be a side effect of her not understanding how to control her own beauty).

Above all, though, this film should not have been a 100 minute movie but a 300 minute TV series: that way it would have mattered less that the project is all about character rather than dialogue, that the 'beats' are 'out' and the symmetry if the film so uneven and lumpy, given the characters more time to naturally develop and could have sported the greatest theme tune ever devised if they'd gone for the title track (a clever summation of the film). Of course Murdoch would have been even less likely to get this project made then, however (films tend to make more money back than TV, even Kickstarter projects like this one): in which case it's a sacrifice worth making. 'God Help The Girl' may be out of synch with the big action blockbusters that were hits in 2014, every other film ever made and what fans might have been expecting, but it's perfectly in synch with Murdoch's career arc and offers old fans like me much more than a modern Belle and Sebastian album would (although I'm open to being proved wrong when I get round to getting to know the new one). The end result is far from perfect and badly needs a stronger second half resolving the first (is James really that settled in his ways and unable to move up a gear, the crime that Isobel once threw at Stuart? He was gigging long before she was, in both cases!) but is still an absolute triumph. How the hell can godawful rivals like 'Mama Mia' get such a following when this film all but disappeared is beyond me (admittedly it's been received very well by experts, getting a nomination at the Sundance Film Festival, but seems to have disappeared and is available in HMV at the time of writing for the highly reasonable price of £7).

Our review in a nutshell then: don't watch this film if you want a strong plot, hate musicals and don't like movies with young people in them (the band's cameo and the nurse aside, nobody in this film is older than 25; this may deliberate given that Eve has been surrounded by older carers for most of her recent past: that might be why she chides James so much for being old before his time)or you expect B and S to play a major part in the film: two old songs, one new mumbled Stevie Jackson part and a couple of cameos they don't. But do watch it if you love low budget character-driven films, love the fact that at last they've made a film about Glasgow (a beautiful city), if you want to discover new talent (all three actors plus writer/director Murdoch), if Stuart's writing has always made you cry or if you're currently stuck in some cell of your own, waiting for your one glorious summer of sunshine. Fan response has been largely positive but quite often negative (often the fans who joined the party from 2003 onwards and expected a bigger production). We say: God help the fan who doesn't like this film - they need all the help they can get.

A quick word too about the impressive extras on the DVD: there's a typically shambolic half hour B and S gig from the premiere which took place at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh and was beamed to select cinemas across the UK (including Dudley, much to Murdoch's amusement, although he gets the fact that it's in Lancashire wrong - its actually in Staffordshire). Typically the band only do two songs from the film, only one song the casual audience might know ('I'm A Cuckoo') and open with their most obscure song ever: Stuart David instrumental B-side 'Winter Wooskie!' The rest of the band don't get much to do sadly (this would have been a fine moment to show the world how united they still are) but Murdoch is on good form, admitting to the crowd that it was him hiding in the car park trying to listen in to what they thought of the film! There are also four puff pieces about the making of it (which are informative on details and the 'hows' and 'whens', but not too good on the motivation and 'whys'), a trailer and a fun music video of the title track - which is actually a better trailer for the film than the trailer! 

Other Belle and Sebastian related articles from this website you might be interested in reading:

A Now Complete Link Of Belle and Sebastian Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:
‘Fold Your Hands, Child, You Walk Like A Peasant’ (2001)
'Storytelling' (2002)

'Push Barman To Open Old Wounds' (EP compilation 2003)

'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' (2004)
'The Life Pursuit' (2006)

'Write About Love' (2010)
'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014)
Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015)

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips
Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs
Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums
Essay: B and S Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

The Byrds: Pre-Fame Recordings In Different Bands

You can buy 'All The Things - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Byrds' By Clicking 

The Pre-Fame Byrds:
Almost uniquely for an Alan's Album Archives band, almost all the Byrds shot to fame in some band or another or making their own solo recordings before taking full flight together in 1965 and beyond. Some of these bands are covered in full later on in the text - bands like 'The International Submarine Band' (Gram Parsons) and 'Nashville West' (Clarence White and Gene Parsons) where you can hear the 'early' sound of their respective eras of The Byrds taking place. However some Byrds weren't taking part in these early recordings to take their place in the spotlight or to test out the new sound in their head but simply to pay their bills. None of the following recordings are truly essential and mainly have the Byrds lost in the crowd (they did tend to hang out with rather lage sized folk groups after all) rather than taking charge but each of these recordings is interesting in it's own way to see what the band were up to. So before we start with what The Byrds did together here's a summing up of what they did apart:

Roger McGuinn:
The former Jim McGuinn's first recorded performance came with a folk group known as 'The Limeliters'. By 1960 McGuinn had been playing solo sets in coffee-clubs for a while in between college courses when he was spotted by Limeliter Alex Hassilev who was keen to add a fourth member to the group and promised him an audition for the following day. The group never did get any big hits but were had been making regular appearances on TV and radio since 1959 so this was a big break for McGuinn, who spent a nervous night borrowing all his friend's Limeliter records and learning as many of the chords as he could. Amazingly the practical 18-year-old McGuinn passed the audition then turned them down, claiming he needed to finish his studies first. The band agreed but contacted him again during the traditional summer break, asking him to bulk out their sound on  LP 'Tonight In Person' (released on RCA in January 1961). You can't really hear McGuinn (and he doesn't appear on the cover), but he is there on both the studio and live recordings, helping with the mixture of serious earnest songs like 'The Monks Of St Bernard' (a Hassilev original) and the whimsy of Flanders and Swann's 'Maderia My Dear'. Perhaps looking forward to the time when The Byrds channel the sound of The Beatles, it's also a peculiarly 'English' album, less Pete Seeger than The Seekers. Full track listing: There's a A Meetin' Here Tonight/Molly Malone/The Monks Of St Bernard/Seven Daffodils/Hey Li Lee Li Lee/Headin' For The Hills/The Far Side Of The Hill/Rumania Rumania/Maderia M'Dear/Proschai)

McGuinn had made an impact and his name didn't go by un-noticed on the record sleeve and when fame came calling a second time he said 'yes' much quicker. This time the head-hunters were The Chad Mitchell Trio which McGuinn joined for two and a half years - for context twice the length that Gene Clark was in The Byrds. It was here that McGuinn turned his hand to composing for the first time (the middle section of 'Chestnut Mare' being generally accepted as his first work) but none of his songs made the two Mitchell albums he plays on. The first is the student-friendly live album 'Mighty Day On Campus' (Kapp Records, February 1962) which features a very short-haired 19-year-old McGuinn far right on the cover, a shot of the band walking away from Brooklyn College. Jim was a mere musician on this record, backing the trio of singers with guitar and banjo, but the wider space this leaves him gives you a much better chance to hear him and you can already hear...'something' of the folk-end of The Byrds sound without being quite able to put your finger on it. Given the times, this is a 'brave' record, full of 'comedy' tales about axe-murderers and the prohibition movement! Listen out too for 'Puttin' On Style' - no, not the skiffle song - especially, which is almost rock and roll in its adults-don't-get-us lyrics (McGuinn may have been the youngest band member but they're all in their early 20s). This record peaked in the US charts at #39, the first time one of The Byrds made the top 40. (Full track listing: Mighty Day/Rum By Gum/The Whistling Gypsy/Super Skier/Donna Donna Donna/Whup! Jamboree/Lizzie Borden/Tale Toddle/Johnnie/Puttin' On Style/Hang On The Bell Nellie/On My Journey).

McGuinn hung around for one more album with the trio, 'At The Bitter End' (Kapp Records, July 1962), another live record this time recorded at a club of the same name in Greenwich Village. McGuinn can again be seen on the cover, hidden away at the back, an embarrasing grin plastered over his face. This album is less broad, played to a smaller crowd who can hear the acoustics better and features less traditional material and more songs by 'contemporary' folkies like Woody Gurthie (seven years before The Byrds start covering his songs), although surprisngly perhaps no Pete Seeger (see 'Turn! Turn! Turn!') A bit of trivia for you though: this was one of fellwo AAA star Paul Simon's favourite records and he adored the Chad Mitchell (and McGuinn guitar) arrangement of 'Last Night I Had The Strangesat Dream' so much he and Garfunkel recorded it for their debut 'Wednesday Morning 3 AM'.  Many fans prefer this album, but for me the first is funnier and better performed. (Full track listing: The John Birch Society/Hello Susan Brown/The Unfortunate Man/Blues Around My Head/James James Morrison Morrison/The Great Historical Bum/Alberta/Moscow Nights/Come Along Home/You Can Tell The World/Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream). Incidentally many of the Chad Mitchell Trio's TV appearance with McGuinn backing them still survive and can at the time of writing be seen on The Byrds' Youtube channel - the future Roger looks both nervous and serious, as well as seriously young!

 While McGuinn said later that he loved most of his time with the band he flet restricted as just their guitar player and wanted to write and sing so once again he left to return to the coffee houses as a solo folkie act, briefly interrupted by a spell backing Bobby Darin who wanted to move away from rock and roll and into folk (sadly his ill health meant the project dwindled before the pair ever recorded anything together, although they did play live at a few gigs). Thereafter McGuinn really did become a solo act...which is where he met up with Gene Clark, then David Crosby and then eventually formed The Byrds...

David Crosby:

His future partner Crosby, meanwhile, came from a similar background, preferring the life of a solo folk artists who could play in coffee houses (interrupted by a brief fleeing from the law after getting his grilfriend pregnant with the son who later became a member of Crosby's group CPR...everything about Crosby winds up sounding like the plot of a soap opera!) However Crosby struggled to live off his meagre earnings and jumped at the chance to join Les Baxter's Balladeers. A more commercial, less serious group than The Chad Mitchell Trio, they even came with their own red uniform - which Crosby, predictably, hated and often refused to wear. The band only lasted long enough to make a handful of live recordings which came out on the rare various artists record which 'pretended' to tie in with the popular 'Hootenany' folk Tv programme thanks to the name and likeness of the presenter: 'Jack Linkletter Presents A Folk Festival' (Link Records, 1963). The band only sing four songs but unlike McGuinn, Crosby is very much audible on all of them, his distinctive high harmonies including 'Linnin' Track' (a rare early song by Fred Neil before he became famous - Crosby's future partner Stephen Stills will become a huge fan) and 'Baiion', an early example of Crosby's love of unusual jazz tunings. (The full track listing for the Balladeers: Ride Up-Lonesome Traveller/Midnight Special/Linnin' Track/Baiion (Banks Of The Ohio)'). Neither Crosby nor the Balladeers appear on the sleeve. Following these Crosby also made the solo folk recordings later heard on the 'Preflyte Sessions' credited to The Byrds (2001) and covered elsewhere in this book in greater detail.

Gene Clark:

Gene had perhaps the most interesting ride of all the pre-fame Byrds. Gene's first band was more of a rock combo, Joe Meyrs and The Sharks (Gene wad the guitarist and back-up singer) but like many school bands collapsed when the members left lower education and went their separate ways. The band did last long enough to revord a single, however, and it's significant that the B-side is the first known publioshed Clark song 'Blue Ribbon' - sadly if you know someone who says they've heard it then they're either incredibly rich or quite possibly lying and this recordings has yet to leak into thew hands of the general collector nor been granted an official release. Shockingly Gene was all of 14 when the song was recorded. His next bands The Rum Runners and The Surf Riders were more into folk, despite their unusual names and neither made any records. However they made a lot of friends, including The New Christy Minstrels who used the band as the support act during an appearance in Kansas' 'Castaway Club'.

The Minstrels were then at their commercial peak, with a hit single in 'Green, Green' released early in 1963 and were looking to build on their early repertoire (they started as a spin-off from the UK's Black and White Minstrel Show, though taqhnkfully without the blackface makeup). Always keen to add talent to the band, founder and lead writer Randy Sparks hired Gene to sing on the band's seasonal 1963 record 'Merry Christmas' (Columbia, November 1963), alongside his other new nsigning Barry McGuire, meaning that the first time Gene could be heard singing by the average man on the street was on a long line of Christmas songs - hardly befitting his later serious downbeat image! Not that you can really hear Gene properly, although I think I can detect him at the bottom of the group's sound here and there, usually holding his notes longer than the others and soaring off into the middle distance - good practice fort what's to come, actually. In fact this is quite an interesting festive album all round for the times, with Randy Sparks writing almost everything on an entirely original record - though none of the songs by their most junior member get a look in. Like many a Christmas record, this one was actually recorded in a heatwave, back in July! The front cover of the album features a three-tier sleigh full of the nine band members offering up presents - that's Gena t the bottom of the middle basket, caught halfway between a grin and looking as if he's about to be sick (note too that Gene is pictured on the cover of previous Minstrels LP 'Ramblin' hanging off the back of a train - his first professional photo, although he had merely joined the band in time for the cover shot and didn't actually appear on the album).(Meanwhile back to 'Christmas' - Full track listing: Beautiful City/Tell It On The Mountain/One Star/Christmas Wishes/The Shepherd Boy/Sing Hosanna Hallelujah!/ Sing Along With santa/It'll Be A Merry Christmas/Tell Me/A Christmas World/Parson Brown/Our Christmas Trees).

Gene stayed long enough to record a second, more normal album with The New Christy Minstrels, 'Land Of Giants' (Columbia, August 1964), a Johnny Cash-style 'concept' album about how the American workers living off the fat of the land are the true American patriots. Or something like that - in truth it jiust means another load of generic Randy Sparks song by earnest folkies in earnest voices without even the seasonal good cheer to get you through. Once again Gene is only a bit player but you can still tell it's him - or at least I think I can - every so often down the bottom of the band's singing spectrum. (Full track-listing: Land Of Giants/Joe Magarac/John Henry And The Steam Drill/Paul Bunyan/Casey Jones/Stormy/Mighty Big Ways/Mount Rushmore/Blacksmith Of Brandywine/Natural Man/Appleseed John/El Caminmo Real/My Name Is Liberty). In a sign of things to come, Gene found himself getting worn out by the constant touring, travelling and TV appearances (the Minstrels were busy boys - and girls, rivalling even the first year of The Byrds for hard work) and left the band to go solo, citing his fear of flying as his main reason for quitting. This bit rather rings a bell...

Chris Hillman:

It's a sign of how integral a part Hillman was to his first band 'The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers' that they ended up changing their name to 'The Hillmen' in honour of their 16-year-old star (who was still at school when he first joined them). Back in the early days, though, The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers released a hard-to-find LP 'Bluegrass Favourites' in 1962 (Crown Records), full of traditional covers that sound not unlike the recordings Chris will make at the other end of his career with The Desert Rose Band, the Rice Brothers and Herb Pedersen. There's certainly nothing from The Byrds there - not even the folk that will become a key part of their early sound and the label Crown were best known for selling their wares in places other than record shops (ie they sold to curious supermarkets and people after groceries rather than music lovers). For all that I rather like this album, though, with Hillman already a star on mandolin and of all The Byrds he's the one who looks most like himself on the album cover, standing bottom left a serious look on his short-haired face. This is quite a hard, fast paced album too, compared to the oh-so-slow folk albums the rest of the band did in their early days. There are no original songs, however and at just 18 minutes it seems there weren't that many bluegrass favourites oiut there people wanted to hear...(Ful track listing: Shady Grove/Home Sweet Home/Katie Cliner/Swamp Root/The Willow Tree/Hand Me Down My Walking Cane/Three Finger Breakdown/Cripple Creek/Crown Junction Breakdown/Reuben's Train).

Thereafter the band transformed into 'The Hillmen', the group losing some members but gaining future Flying Burrito Brother Bernie Leadon and brothers Vern and Rex Gosdin, who'll go on to get co-biling on Gene Clark's first 'solo' LP. Perhaps even more importantly the band also gain a new manager: Jim Dickson, who'll be so impressed with Chris in particular that he'll pit his name forward as bass player for his next band The Byrds - even though for now Chris is simply a mandpolin player. Chris also plays a more prominent role here, as can be guessed from the new band name, although despite all this effort the band's one and only album under their new moniker ('The Hillmen', Together Records) was never issued in their lifetime; instead it's one of the first things Chris worked on after leaving The Byrds in 1969 (before forming the Burritos) and was later re-issued again alongside Hillman's first album 'Morning Sky' for Sugar Hill Records in 1981. Chris stands second left on this cover, facing the camera much more in the band's distinctive uniform of black trousers, white shirts and half tuexedo jackets. This time around the Gosdin Brothers have already started writing and doing a bit of singing as well, while Hillman is quiet for now, making this a much more original - and longer - affair than the debut. Note too a coupkle of early Bob Dylan covers - the first ever made by one of the Byrds although they sound more bluegrass than folk-rock - the first appearance ofr 'Fair and Tenderr Ladies', a song later covered by future partner McGuinn. Somehow, though, it's all a bit stilted and not quite as enjoyable. (Full track listing: Brown Morning Light/Ranger's Command/ nSangaree/Bluegrass Chopper/Barbara Allen/Fair and Tender Ladies/Goin' Up/Wheel Hoss/When The Ship Comes In/Fare Thee Well/Winsborough Cotton Mill Blues/Priosner's Plea/Black Road Fever/Copper Kettle/Roll On Muddy River). With the non-appearance of the album, the band broke-up and Hillman was left to play some grudging solo shows - however thankfully he only had a year to wait before getting a call from his old manager that would change his life...

Kevin Kelley:

What a line-up this is ladies and gentleman: Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and a future Byrd drummer all in the same band together! It's a surprise, actually, that this band The Rising Sons didn't make more of a splash - they clearly had the talent, judging not just by the name but the rough and ready songs recorded in 1966 but left in the vaults for some 26 years (as 'The Rising Sons', out on Columbia/Legacy alongside the second batch of Byrds album re-issues in September 1992).The album is of most interest to fans of the future Taj Mahal and features several of his early blues favourites like 'Corrina Corrina' and 'Candy Man', although note the first appeareance of future Byrds covers 'Baby What Dpo You Want Me To Do?' and  'Tulsa County', recorded one and two albums on from Kelley's stint with the band respectively (did this era of the band jam them first? Erm, probably not, given how fully in control country-loving Gram Parsons is by then). There's even a Dylan cover, although chances are ';Walkin' Down The Line' is here mainly because the success of The Byrds in 1965 has made it almost inevitable in every young band's set (it may have helped that Kelley was Hillman's cousin). Kelley is very much a minor part of the proceedings but acquits himself well on yet another style alien to his natural work (I'd still love to hear him play on a 'rock' album, as he seems to have a real feel for it rather than blues as per here and country as per his one and only Byrds album). (Full track listing: Statesboro Blues/If The River Was Whiskey/ By and By/Candy Man/2:10 Train/Let The Good Times Roll/44th Blues/ 11th Street Overcrossing/Corrina Corrina/Tulsa County/Walkin' Down The Line/Girl With Green Eyes/Sunny's Dream/Spanish Lace Blues/The Devil's Got My Woman/Take A Giant Step/Flyin' So High/Dust My Broom/Last fair Deal Gone Down/Baby What You Want Me To Do?/Statesboro Blues Reprise/I Got A Little).

Clarence White:

Clarence was all of ten years old when he joined his family band The White Brothers on guitar playing country and bluegrass favourites. He's a little older on the 1960s recordings although still a mere 18-years-old on most of the ones that have come to light. By and large this band's recordings sound much like you'd expect: it's basically The Byrds' reportoire in their fainl days circa 1970-1972 with The Byrds hits taken out: fast and furious instrumentals and lots of shaky country cover songs. Like the fried chicken the band are jokingly named after (none of them are colonels, by the way, but they do come from Kentucky!) the first taste is glorious but becomes more and more nausteaing the further down the bucket of recordings you get. To date these records have been released a ridiculous amount of times in different covers and sometimes with unreleased songs and live recordings added from the vaults so we won't list then all or even the contents but we will list the titles and dates for you: 'The New Sound Of Bluegrass' (Briar, 1963), 'Appalachian Swing' (World Pacific,1964), 'The Kentucky Colonels' (United Artists, 1974), 'Livin' In The Past' (Briar, 1975), 'Kentucky Colonels' (Rounder, 1977), 'Still Livin' In The Past' (Briar, 1978), 'Live In L.A.' (Briar, 1978), 'Kentucky Colonels' (Shiloh, 1979), 'Clarence White and the Kentucky Colonels' (Rounder, 1980), 'On Stage' (Rounder, 1984) and 'Long Journey Home' (Vanguard, 1995). Of these the last is easily the best and - happily - the most readily available, with a longer set-listing and a deeper exploration of country and bluegrass music than the usual same old boring standards, although 'On Stage' is worth a listen too for the stilted brotherly banter as much as the precocious playing. None of these released is truly worthy of Clarence's reputation but you can tell well why he was already being seen as a 'star' and can already hear the different styles he's trying to gradually build into his act.

Skip Battin:

Most of Skip's releases came from his really early days pre-Byrds, dating back to the 1950s as part of the duo 'Skip and Flip' with friend Gary Paxton. Annoyingly to date there still hasn't been a decent collection of the pair's early hits, which seems strange because unlike some of the obscure records in our list that have become important simply because they feature future Byrds, these songs really were hits: 'It Was I' and 'Cherry Pie' both peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts - which incidentally means they did better than future Byrds singles 'Eight Miles High' and 'Chestnut Mare', albeit with rather more competition around by the sixties. Skip's first actual album is almost equally as hard to find, a record by a band given the very 'Skip' name 'The Evergreen Blueshoes' (and titled 'The Ballad Of The Evergreen Blueshoes'). By the time this album appeared (on the Amos/London label in 1969), Skip was an aging 35 and had already quit the music business twice. The band were knocked on the head after Skip was hired to join The Byrds at the end of the year, which on this evidence is something of a shame, for the band at least, as they have a nicely laidback psychedelic side that allows Skip's wackier ideas to bear full fruit without sounding as at out of place as with The Byrds. Primarily, though, they're a country-folk-rock band hybrid who very much modelled themselves on ears of The Byrds - probably a good reason why Skip was hired in the first place. Kim Fowley, Skip's writing partner, is also along for the ride even this early and the pair make a formiddable writing team on this album which is easily the most eclectic in this list of 'pre-fame' records, merging country picking with novelty folk songs and a cover of Johnny B Goode'. (Full track-listing: Life's Railway To Heaven/Walking Down The Line/Line Out/Amsterdam In 1968/Everything's Fine Right Now/Johnny B Goode/The Hedgehog Song/Mrs Cohen's Little Boy/Moon Over Mount Olympus/Jewish Teahouse/The Evergreen Express)

A Now Complete Link Of Byrd Articles Available To Read At Alan’s Album Archives:

'Mr Tambourine Man' (1965)
‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ (1965)

'(5D) Fifth Dimension' (1966)

'Younger Than Yesterday' (1967)

'The Nototious Byrd Brothers' (1968)

'Sweethearts Of The Rodeo' (1968)

'Dr Byrds and Mr Hyde' (1969)

‘The Ballad Of Easy Rider’ (1969)

'Untitled' (1970)
'Byrdmaniax' (1971)
'The Byrds' (1973)

Surviving TV Appearances
Unreleased Songs
Non-Album Songs (1964-1990)
A Guide To Pre-Fame Byrds Recordings
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part One (1964-1972)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Two (1973-1977)

Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Three (1978-1991)
Solo/Live/Compilation Albums Part Four (1992-2013)
Essay: Why This Band Were Made For Turn! Turn! Turn!ing
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions