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Sundance 2014: With 'God Help the Girl,' the stars of track and film

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PARK CITY, Utah -- Seven years ago at Sundance, a member of a soulful rock band from across the pond made his directorial debut with a music-themed movie populated with haunting melodies and a delicate relationship between a male and female musician.

That film was John Carney's "Once," and it became such a success story that in the promo short that runs before each screening this year touting great discoveries over Sundance's 30 years, the film makes an appearance, right alongside “Reservoir Dogs” and “Hoop Dreams.”

On Saturday night at Sundance, another music-themed narrative film, Stuart Murdoch's "God Help the Girl," made its premiere. To invoke "Once" would be setting the bar high. Yet it's hard to avoid the similarities -- it too comes from a member of a soulful rock band from across the pond making his directorial debut with a music-themed movie, and it too is populated with haunting melodies and a delicate relationship between a male and female musician.

PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2014 | The Scene

Murdoch is, of course, the lead singer of Belle and Sebastian, the fey rock band from Glasgow that has been wooing audiences, and helping emo boys woo girls, for nearly two decades. Though it remains to be seen whether Murdoch has created another "Once," his first directorial effort certainly has some strong dramatic and musical chops, and fits very nicely into the youth-oriented-heart-warmer category that can reflect this festival as its best.

The film has Emily Browning as Eve, a young woman struggling with depression and other disorders at a mental hospital. Soon  she meets a young, neurotic singer-songwriter (Olly Alexander), and the two form the kind of sweet, music-nerd-based bond you might find in, well, a Belle and Sebastian song. That’s a good thing -- their quiet travails, personal and musical, are touching and watchable, and the film has that bouncy-but-bittersweet quality common to “High Fidelity” and other good movies about modern music. (Murdoch said at the screening that the inspiration for the film came simply from “sometimes when I’m walking along I wish the world would just turn into a great pop song.”)

Fittingly given its Belle and Sebastian resume, “God Help” has a lived-in coming-of-age feel without feeling overly precious. It also poses the questions about great artists and artistry -- the power of a pop song, the value of selling out -- in a more thoughtful and gentle way than most movies of its kind.

Though it's officially a musical, "God Help the Girl" takes a refreshingly unconventional approach to its music, which like the best of B&S is also both sweet and melancholy. It also looks anew at the form of the musical itself, with songs often integrated into the narrative instead of simply popping up whenever someone feels like singing their thoughts.

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The project has an unusual back story. Murdoch has been trying to craft a movie for at least eight years, writing and rewriting the script. (More from an interview with him later.)

A series of development and financing hiccups kept that from happening -- Browning and co-star Hanna Murray said at the screening that so much time had passed after their auditions they thought the film wasn’t happening -- as did a belief on the part of Hollywood that it wasn't quite there.

Murdoch would, he said at the screening, come to Los Angeles "and sit in a grubby motel room" working on the script. He'd then take it go over to his Hollywood film producer, Barry Mendel, who would tell him essentially, Murdoch said, that “it’s just typing.”

The songs, meanwhile, soon evolved to the point that Murdoch felt they were ready. So he recorded them with a series of female musicians including Catherine Ireton and put them out as an album, titled “God Help the Girl,” in 2009 and, as he said, “forgot about” the film a few more times before coming back to it.

PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2014 | Photo booth

The movie was made on a down-and-dirty-budget in about 25 days -- and most of the music in it, even the background tracks sung by other artists, was written by Murdoch and Belle and Sebastian to avoid expensive licensing fees. Pretty much all the songs Browning and Alexander sing are written by Murdoch as well, many appearing on the 2009 record. (There’s a seamless quality to the numbers; Mendel said that the film had an unusual process in which the music was mixed as they were still shooting so they could return and fix the issues while they were still in production.)

Murdoch said at the screening that while writing and directing a film pushed him out of his comfort zone, he felt right at home making a movie about the canon of pop music and one’s daunting place in it. (Alexander articulates the theme in the film as basically “wanting to put a small flag on the timeline” of modern music) That personal investment is something Murdoch believes makes the process and finished product that much better.

“I had brunch with Robert Redford today, and he said ‘write about your experience,’” the quippy Murdoch said at the screening. “He also said 'be socially active and write about social issues and bring down the government.' That's my next movie.”

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