One of these days, Edgar Wright is going to make a musical. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is the closest he’s come so far, playing much as a musical would if the musical numbers were replaced by fights, but his films are all about characters reacting and expressing themselves extravagantly, albeit through genre tropes rather than through song.
Until something like that comes along, it feels like it’s becoming increasingly easy to sneer at feel-good musicals. In my humble opinion, feel-good often pans out better than your average feel-bad musical movie, (Repo! The Genetic Opera) and it’s especially better than a frankly-feel-embarrassed-about-the-whole-thing musical (Rock Of Ages).
And in a market in which Mamma Mia! became the UK’s highest grossing movie ever back in 2008, you can certainly understand the rationale behind Sunshine On Leith, Dexter Fletcher’s cinematic adaptation of an acclaimed Dundee rep theatre production, based on the music of The Proclaimers.
The story, such as it is, follows two Scottish squaddies, Davey (George Mackay) and Allie, (Kevin Guthrie) returning home from service in Afghanistan after one of their mates is killed by a roadside bomb. Both of them take jobs in a call centre, and are left wondering what to do with the future.
Allie is pretty certain that he wants to settle down and marry Davey’s sister, Liz (Freya Mavor), while Davey embarks on a whirlwind romance with an English nurse called Yvonne (Antonia Thomas). Elsewhere, Davey and Liz’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks) celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, but face the greatest crisis of their marriage when an old dalliance is revealed.
As plots go, it’s hardly Inception. Musicals are typically more character-led than story-driven, unless they’re based on pre-existing source material (Les Mis, Sweeney Todd et al) and the strength of Sunshine On Leith is in its likeable characters rather than in the way that the story develops.
In the case of the young leads, this is more to do with the charisma of the actors than the depth of character on display, and their stories are more obviously led by the song sheet. Allie wants to get married, (Let’s Get Married) Liz wants to take up a research degree in Miami, (Letter From America) and Yvonne hopes that Davey would travel a long way to make it work with her (the inevitable 500 Miles).
But the leads are all terrific singers, and they’re involved in some of the most raucously enjoyable numbers. After an uncharacteristically downbeat opening in Afghanistan, Mackay and Guthrie open the film with what looks like a guerrilla-filmed rendition of I’m On My Way through an Edinburgh street, complete with apparent non-extras reacting to their sudden singing and dancing.
The stronger romantic arc is between Rab and Jean. True, one of them is named especially so that they can be serenaded with a certain track by the other at some point (Oh Jean), but there’s some beautifully written and played stuff between them.
Peter Mullan has a surprising vocal range, starting out in growly Tom Waits form, and lightening up a bit as he goes along. In terms of both acting and musical performance, though, Jane Horrocks is the highlight of the whole film. She’s a veteran of musical theatre and cinema, which means she’s got some great pipes on her, but she’s utterly brilliant every time she pops up onscreen.
Given how there’s so much location filming in Edinburgh, it’s slightly disappointing that the film didn’t find more opportunities to carry on in the way that it opens, even if the finale has a couple of confused-looking civilians amidst the flash mob that erupts on the Mound. But this isn’t a film that’s taxing itself with meta-textual questions about the medium, as you can imagine someone like Wright would do.
Instead, director Dexter Fletcher brings a refreshingly un-ironic sentimentality to the proceedings. The numbers are all pretty well judged, including a particularly enjoyable version of Over And Done With that overtakes a whole pub, and although the story has big emotional beats, Fletcher is never cloying at the audience.
It’s a quality that was also present in his debut feature, Wild Bill, which brought Western trappings to a family drama on a council estate, and works wonders here. There’s no star-led karaoke gubbins here, and the tone generally befits the folksy quality of The Proclaimers’ discography.
Sunshine On Leith is about as charming and delightful as you would expect. Accepting that the default setting of a musical is to be slightly over-powering, this is a film that is irresistibly enthusiastic without ever becoming annoying or overlong, and the strength of the cast and the music serves to carry a slightly weaker script throughout.
Moreover, it’s a pretty terrific depiction of Edinburgh, which I’m sure will thrill the tourism bods. In the same week as the superior but harrowing Filth came to UK cinemas, we have the essential double bill of the year – though I recommend that you watch the more harrowing film first, because this serves as a lovely cinematic upper.
Sunshine On Leith is out in UK cinemas now.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.