Belle & Sebastian Go to the Movies

The music of Belle and Sebastian sounds like a movie for the ears. Stuart Murdoch’s wry, exquisitely detailed lyrics can fold a novel’s worth of character, setting, conflict, and resolution into the standard three-minute pop song format. Riffs and melodies carry over from song to song the way motifs reappear in film scores, and violin stings and woodwind trills suggest mid-century film scores. Even the monochromatic portraits that appear on their record sleeves look like stills from a beloved, unjustly forgotten kitchen sink melodrama or French new wave feature. 

If You’re Feeling Sinister, Belle and Sebastian’s breakthrough album, hit record store shelves a few months after Wes Anderson’s debut feature Bottle Rocket premiered. The band has yet to work with the director, but they share his retro sensibility and fondness for obscure 1960s singles. Both Belle and Sebastian and Wes Anderson were seen as early proponents of the twee indie subculture that took root in the early 2000s, and as Anderson’s films found a cult audience, the band’s songs started appearing as needle drops in montage sequences that evoked scenes from Anderson’s movies. 

After a few movies with single-artist soundtracks like About A Boy became sleeper hits in the late 1990s, Belle and Sebastian signed on to write a song score for Todd Solondz’s third feature, Storytelling.  The pairing of band and filmmaker didn’t seem like a natural fit; Belle & Sebastian’s mid-century twist on college rock and the pragmatic optimism of Murdoch’s lyrics seemed out of sync with Solondz’s dour worldview and tacky, 1980s New Jersey aesthetic. 

This tonal mismatch, combined with a troubled postproduction process, meant that only six minutes of the band’s music made the final cut. “Todd kept saying, ‘I love it all, but it’s not right for the movie’,” trumpeter Mick Cooke recalled in the liner notes for the Belle & Sebastian album Storytelling. “We just didn’t know what was right for the movie.” The music that did make the cut gave the film a campy tone, as in the jaunty fanfare that plays under a scene where the housekeeper leaves the home of the family that fired her. After a blackly farcical ending that would have been tragic in any other movie, the sweet female vocals, lush production, and lyrical metacommentary of closing credits song “Storytelling” extends the mean-spirited feel of the final scene. 

Though the arch lyrics for Storytelling’s title song landed with a thud, it also highlighted something Stuart Murdoch does well in his verses. Many of the band’s most beloved songs are about the life-changing power of popular music; “Get Me Away from Here I’m Dying” and “Like Dylan in the Movies” evoke the feeling of being seen in the lyrics of a pop song, while “Judy and the Dream of Horses” portrays a young woman who puts her life into perspective through songwriting. This awareness of the ways narrative works and the tension between life and art played a role in God Help the Girl, Murdoch’s directorial debut. 

According to the Kickstarter story for God Help the Girl, the idea for the film came from a song. “Seven years ago, Stuart was out for a run and a tune came into his head which didn’t sound like Belle & Sebastian. It was sung by a girl, and soon, one tune led to another. Then Eve started to talk, James came along, then Cassie, and as all of their thoughts evolved, so did a girl group sound and a sense that it wanted to be a film, a musical.” 

The resulting film unspools like an MGM musical made by a member of the Cahiers du Cinema staff. After being hospitalized for anorexia, Eve (Emily Browning) meets music teacher James (Olly Alexander) at a basement gig in Glasgow. James introduces Eve to his student Cassie (Hannah Murray) and the three begin writing songs and form a band inspired by classic girl singers and groups. Putting pen to paper helps Eve process what’s happened to her and allows her to chart a path in her adult life. 

Murdoch’s strong (if somewhat derivative) visual style guides God Help the Girl. The streets of Glasgow explode in a riot of primary color, and tinsel-trimmed back rooms at RAF halls take on a glamorously grimy allure under moody, green-tinted lighting. Naturalistic performances from the three protagonists complement the more stylized visuals and musical numbers that obliquely gesture at the fourth wall. Browning in particular looks like she could have jumped off the cover of a Belle & Sebastian album, and her unfussy line readings and awkward baby-giraffe gait give the character a palpable sense of vulnerability. 

The film comes to life with smaller musical numbers as the characters get to know one another and learn to write songs together. Murdoch’s ability to write about the role pop music can play in young people’s lives makes scenes like the band’s early meet-cute even more engaging, and a mid-film scene where Eve makes her stage debut has a lived-in feel that’s probably informed by Murdoch’s experiences with his band. By contrast, stretches between musical numbers feel long, and Eve’s dalliance with the caddish Anton (Pierre Boulanger) seems contrived. 

God Help the Girl was a modest indie success on its 2014 release, but Murdoch wasn’t ready to give up his day job. “I wouldn’t be in a position to direct something I hadn’t written, or at least originated,” he told the Guardian on the film’s release. “You could get 50 other guys who would do a better job.”

Two decades after the release of Storytelling, Belle & Sebastian took another turn at writing a song score, this time for an adaptation of the graphic novel Days of the Bagnold Summer. The two films have some similarities; they’re both episodic features that follow average middle-class characters, and they both have a deadpan, observational sense of humor. However, director Simon Bird and screenwriter Lisa Owens have a more redemptive worldview than the fatalistic Solondz, and the themes of the film seem more harmonious with the perspective from which Stuart Murdoch writes his lyrics. 

Days of the Bagnold Summer follows Sue Bagnold (Monica Dolan), a middle-aged librarian, who unexpectedly has to take care of her saturnine teenage son Daniel (Earl Cave) over a long summer. Neither character wants to understand the other—Sue sees Daniel as lazy and is judgmental of his love of heavy metal music, while Daniel is embarrassed by his mother’s dowdy style and wry sense of humor. As the story progresses, the pair slowly learn to respect and show affection for one another. 

The choice of Belle & Sebastian for the score is a canny one. As director, Simon Bird shares Stuart Murdoch’s understated comic timing and eye for detail, and protagonist Sue Bagnold’s frumy appearance and perceptible feeling of being adrift make her seem like a character in a Belle & Sebastian song. The band’s music is used organically throughout the film—an early montage depicting a typical day at Sue’s library is scored to fan favorite “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying”, while lesser-known songs by the band appear later on in the film. Belle & Sebastian’s gentle, melodic music contrasts with the thrash metal Daniel favors, at times grounding us in Sue’s perspective. The music cues the band wrote for the Days of the Bagnold Summer give it the feeling of being a little unstuck in time. 

Days of the Bagnold Summer was released in the UK just before the lockdown, and Belle & Sebastian released a live album at the end of last year. There are no current plans for any new film work by the band, but they have left us with many movies for the ears and the mind… as well as a few for the eyes. 

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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