Taking a popular band and making a musical of their most popular songs appears to be a trend now. It’s worked for Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You, their popularity on stage now surpassing ten years. However, the less said about the seven month run of Viva Forever! the better. Brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, better known as The Proclaimers, may not have enjoyed the international fame that ABBA, Queen or even the Spice Girls had, but their back catalogue contains songs that have ingrained themselves in the Scottish consciousness and, more crucially, is large enough to allow the creation of a jukebox musical. In Sunshine On Leith (2013, 90 mins) Stephen Greenhorn adapted his original 2007 stage musical for the screen and the result, under Dexter Fletcher‘s direction, is a jubilant celebration of a movie with just enough underlying drama to lift it above typical musical fare.
Three relationships are at the heart of the movie, capturing the challenges of love at varying stages (hooking up, potential engagement, and silver anniversary) portrayed within a single family. Hooking up are Davy (George MacKay) and Yvonne (Antonia Thomas); he recently discharged from the army and she working at the hospital. Also fresh out the military is Ally (Kevin Guthrie) who has been dating Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor) and is considering the next steps. Then there’s Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks), the siblings’ parents, their twenty-five year marriage testament to the duration of love but not without their own problems.
Despite an opening fraught with nervous uncertainty as Davy, Ally, and their crew are transported across a war zone, the happiness soon starts to infect the movie as, back in Edinburgh, we see the friends walking along the street singing their way through I’m On My Way. It’s not so much the camaraderie of these two friends or that musical thing where people spontaneously burst into song, but the reactions of the others caught on camera. A man on his phone stares at them as if they are mad. Women walking their way smile; men passing look back bemused. Only the Proclaimers themselves, in a cameo, seem not to notice. What this opening does is let us know this is a world where breaking into song is something natural.
And so it continues, moments of drama segueing into song. Jane Horrocks already has a track record apropos singing (cf Little Voice (1998)) and with the rest of the cast providing capable delivery of their vocals the songs are well-served in this regard, although they do miss the somewhat comic emphasis that the Proclaimers bring to the songs in their originals. It’s worth mentionning that Peter Mullan’s gravel tones offer up something of a surprise as he tackles Oh Jean while a crowd dances around him.
One of the problems with such films, as opposed to a musical with original songs, is that the storyline is partly dictated by the lyrics. Letter To America, a song about the Scottish diaspora, seems an obvious candidate for driving elements of the narrative and that is indeed how it’s used. But it’s the way the lyrics are portioned off to the characters that bring a new level of meaning so as to justify the song’s inclusion in the story. There are literal interpretations juxtaposed with others more figurative, and this is true for all those songs delivered by more than one cast member. To this end it’s a pleasure to see songs used in a meaningful context and not just there as a karaoke checklist. Plus, there are moments of subverted expectations (Let’s Get Married, for example) where the songs are used in a new context.
While it’s not the sort of movie that’s going to change the world Sunshine On Leith is at least going to light it up. It would be a cold heart that sits through it unsmiling and arms crossed as there’s enough toe-tapping goodness in the songs as well as decent enough coverage of relationships’ ups, downs, and ups again. As the final shot leaves Edinburgh behind (mirroring the opening journey in) we see the movie for what it is — a slice of life, entertaining and uplifting.