In the new film, God Help The Girl, a practitioner at a mental health hospital diagrams what she terms a “Pyramid of Life.” Items like food, water, and sleep, she suggests, provide the foundational first level. Above them include secondary needs: home, family, friends, and well-being. The top tier allows for less fundamental enjoyments, namely music. No step is to be skipped.
This seems both practical and cruel considering the patient she’s instructing is battling anorexia and hoping to become a singer. The hidden irony here is that this is not a starving artist by choice, this is her unfortunate, literal condition.
The slim, aspirational girl is Eve (the pale and prim-looking Emily Browning) and the film, directed by Stuart Murdoch, lead singer and songwriter for the indie pop band “Belle and Sebastian,” takes place in a Glaswegian town. There is little central drama. Eve temporarily escapes the hospital and slowly forms a band with James (Olly Alexander), a pool lifeguard and guitarist, and Cassie (Hannah Murray), a pretty friend who likes to sing. Most of their interactions and soft dialogue break into songs, all given Murdoch’s handcrafted and ethereal arrangements.
The film turns into a compilation of saccharine music videos, which end up doubling as hipster fashion shows as the trio sports their straw hats, berets, and tweed from Jack’s bedroom to their Scottish greenery. But these musical numbers, under a candy coated color scheme, also offer brief explorations into Eve’s emotional vulnerabilities. The lyrics she writes capture her brief pictures of struggle that seem to enlighten when given a musical life. Performing songs, however randomly, becomes a healing practice, a therapeutic outlet. It inverts the prescribed pyramid.
This is a pretty, folksy film that treads lightly over its more serious subject matter, delicately hinting at the always-fascinating convergence of illness and artistic creativity. It’s a cleaner if not less-focused cousin to another musical indie Frank, which also meditates on that intersection, tracking a pop-rock band of eccentrics from Ireland to South by Southwest, further exploring mental health and musical genius.
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, the film, already in theaters, follows Domhnall Gleeson as Jon, an aspiring, ultimately bumbling singer-songwriter living with his parents and stuck as an office drone outside of London. He walks into a unique opportunity to play piano when a local band’s pianist is ushered to the hospital after attempting suicide. But this group, named an unpronounceable “Soronprfbs,” is different, as is their synth-bass improvisational sound. There’s Maggie Gyllenhaal, a protective and emotionally volatile keyboardist, and Scoot McNairy, the band’s antsy manager. And then there is Michael Fassbender as the band’s lead singer, Frank.
Frank wears an absurdly large smiling papier-mâché head, a character inspired by the late English musician Chris Sievey, whose alter ego Frank Sidebottom performed music with a nearly identical headpiece. Jon, also playing the audience’s surrogate, is naturally intrigued by this masked leader, but his questions are quickly halted. “You’re just going to have to go with this,” says the manager. It’s good advice for watching the film, too.
Pretty soon Jon is “into the looking glass” as he claims, journeying to, then living in pastoral Ireland for over a year: bonding, writing, and recording music within a backdrop of shamrock wilderness. Frank is the creative brains to the project and a strict visionary, ordering perfection from behind his painted facade, which shields an undisclosed disorder that appears ordered, even alleviated, in the midst of his dissonant sound-making. It’s a manic sensibility that thrives only in front of his loyal band members, akin to his careful construction of noise.
Musical therapy is a practice that dates back to Aristotle but became a professional undertaking in the post-war 20th century, aiding the emotional trauma and stress of suffering veterans. But there is no professional practice happening in these films. This is more do-it-yourself therapy, though both Frank and Eve might not use that unflattering term. It’s a personal outlet. Singing, under a mask or by pausing reality, becomes their cathartic release, negotiating between feelings that have no concrete expression perhaps but through nonsensical noise.
But private endeavors have a tendency to be lured into the public sphere, and turning a collective healing into monetary, public gain soon becomes each story’s logical dilemma. Eve’s voice already belongs to the well-established indie genre and her ability forces her to contemplate attending college, outsourcing her talent to be further refined and further exposed. This of course upsets Jack, whose newly formed band will just as quickly fold, whose secretive love for Eve will remain quietly so. His worries soon become feverish insults, lacing the primary concern that she will sell-out and turn into a mainstream, programmable voice.
That eternal struggle, defining sell-out and its consequential concept, rear its head in the last act of Frank. This is largely a result of Jon’s personal ambition trumping his band’s insular brand. Through social media and viral videos, he earns his group a spot at the Texas music festival and begins tweaking their songs, amplifying their “likeability” factor. But as realities surface regarding their impending performance—no fans have really heard their bizarre music—Frank gets cold feet and his condition worsens to a debilitating state. With each added “likeable” note, members back out, urging Jon to do the same. Frank’s large head appears more like a gimmick than a mystifying condition.
A tidy, if unexpected conclusion sends Frank back into his therapeutic ecosystem. By this point, Gleeson’s Jon has become a selfish and frustrating presence but his decision-making is understandable. Why wouldn’t a sputtering British musician want to make it big when given the opportunity? Conversely, why wouldn’t Eve want to pursue a potential career, leave her small town, and find success abroad?
Irish director John Carney grappled less complexly with similar questions in this summer’s Begin Again, another urban musical fable this time set in New York City. Here, selling-out materializes in the form of Dave Kohl, a pop star played by Adam Levine, who ditches the city and his girlfriend Greta (Keira Knightley) for a recording contract. So Greta, responsible for the songs that lifted his fame, produces a grassroots album of original songs instead, boasting an authenticity as grimy as the subways and alleys in which they record.
“Doing something you love, regardless of whether it’s a blockbuster movie or you’re writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed in something, is not selling out,” said Levine at a press conference for the film. “Selling out comes when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale.”
That’s a distinct but vague definition and, to some, might scream hypocrisy considering the person defining it. How can you tell if a band is sacrificing personal credibility when doing what it loves changes from season to season? But credibility isn’t so much the issue in Frank and God Help the Girl. It’s possessiveness, mostly from Jack and Jon, the kind music fans boast regularly as “their” band often begins its ascent into mainstream consciousness. It’s by equal measures a reaction of fear, which can grow as a band’s sound slightly strays from its origins.
Of course, Frank and Eve are not your typical affectionate objects for this kind of clingy attitude. Their stories serve as divergent cautionary tales, parables about the potential for exploiting the diversity of both mental illness and musical aspirations. It is impossible to tell how much one influences the other, how much insanity spawns creativity, how much social inferiority breeds escape. The beauty, and existential frustration, each of these films conveys is that music can provide many helpful answers and still remain a mystery.