Memphis and God Help the Girl are both musicals of a sort, and portraits of musical capitals of a sort. The first is set in the home of some of soul music's greatest stars, but is too wispy and diffident for the average Otis Redding or Al Green fan. The second plays at being a more mainstream effort, but will appeal mostly to people who are such fervent Belle & Sebastian enthusiasts that they actually think of Glasgow as being in the same league as Memphis.
Begun a decade ago as a concept album, God Help the Girl is B&S singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch's attempt to translate his band's formula — melancholic musings set to fizzy melodies and fussy arrangements — into a full-blown narrative. It's the tale of three young people who decide to start a band, whose retro-pop turns out to sound just like Belle & Sebastian's.
Introduced during a music-video-like credit sequence, Eve (Emily Browning) seems to be a schoolgirl on her way to an indie-rock venue. There she meets James (Olly Alexander), whose band has just broken up onstage. She turns ill, and he takes her home. Her real home, we then learn, is a Glasgow mental hospital; she's depressive and anorexic.
Released on the promise that music will repair her, Eve moves into an room in James' house. He takes her to meet Cassie (Hannah Murray), a high-schooler to whom he gives guitar lessons. The three hit it off and decide they're a band, a status that consists largely of talking, hanging out and messing about in boats. (The movie owes as much to The Wind in the Willows as A Hard Day's Night.)
Mid-'60s French pop has always been central to Murdoch's soft-rock vision, and this movie's offhand moments echo Godard and Truffaut's early films. Just before she leaves the hospital, Eve gets a new bob that makes her look like Anna Karina, Godard's early-'60s muse. Also, there are more French accents than thick Scottish ones in Murdoch's idealized summertime Glasgow.
Despite aimless story and an inconclusive ending, Girl has winning vitality and considerable charm. Its weaknesses include clumsy staging, notably of dance sequences, and a score that — like most B&S albums — includes more than a few clunkers. The movie relies too heavily on the appeal of Browning, who's probably best known for the girlie action flick Sucker Punch. And it assumes an audience that cherishes Murdoch's music and shares his interests, which include Scottish identity, the question of God and the inherent coolness of old vinyl and used clothes.
Murdoch, who clearly loves women, depicts Eve and Cassie adoringly. But God Help the Girl has a boy's sensibility. In one scene, a Swiss rocker takes Eve to a thrift shop and dresses her like a mannequin; in another, James stands outside the bathroom while Eve's in the tub and sings about how he'd like to bathe her. The movie might have been more profound if it had openly acknowledged that its passions are not so innocent.
The interpersonal dynamic is simpler in writer-director Tim Sutton's Memphis, in which only one character even has a name. That's Willis, played by left-field R&B revivalist Willis Earl Beal. He wanders the titular city on foot or in a white Cadillac Eldorado, mostly avoiding the recording studio where he's supposed to be making a new record. He's enjoying a low-key existential crisis in a city where, all around him, signs beckon to the unsaved.
There's no back story and no explanation of the other main characters: a joyful bike-riding boy, a buddy who's lost a leg and a woman who seems to be Willis' indulgent girlfriend. The music is largely ambient sound — train whistles, rustling breezes, overheard songs.
Soul music buffs will enjoy a session that features some grizzled veterans, one of whom plays guitar while breathing oxygen through a tube. There are also a couple of visits to a gospel church, where Willis decides he's unworthy to sing. That might be failure of confidence or lack of blessedness, although Willis talks more like Sartre than an everyday lapsed Christian. "Life is an artifice, man," he muses.
He also claims to be a wizard who's created a reality. If that's the world we see, it's one that's at once shabby and strange, naturalistic and dream-like.
Shot by Chris Dapkins, Memphis proceeds as a series of moody, elegantly framed still photographs that happen to move. Typical is a moment in which Willis tries to write a song on a electric keyboard in a near-dark attic, framed by silvery insulation tubes. It's muted, lovely and cryptic, just like Sutton's film.