When it came to Dexter Fletcher’s film version of Sunshine On Leith I was always going to be well disposed to it. Firstly, to me the director is Charles Highway from the film version of The Rachel Papers as well as being the young Caravaggio in Derek Jarman’s film, and he was also Baby Face in Bugsy Malone. And I didn’t even mention Press Gang.
Then there are musicals themselves, which I know some people have a problem with, usually because they can’t get over characters in a perfectly good film just bursting into song. But that was my childhood; one where my father would regularly teach a moral lesson or deliver words of wisdom using the music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein, something he continues to do to this day.
Perhaps surprisingly, I retain great fondness for the form, and some of my favourite films include Singing in the Rain, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, Sweet Charity, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the list goes on and on, and those are just the good ones. Les Miserables was made for me, and so was Sunshine on Leith, a film so ultimately uplifting that my face ached afterwards from smiling throughout, even when I was simultaneously greeting, which I would say is the hallmark of the best musicals.
Another thing which you need are performances you can buy into. You don’t just have to believe who the people on screen are, but you have to believe that they utterly mean what they are singing to each other, which is not as easy as it sounds. The casting here is pretty much spot on. The younger cast are given the more difficult job of making us care as they are just starting out in adult life. Antionia Thomas, Freya Mavor, George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie all do well, (especially Guthrie whose puppy dog eyes movingly convey hope then hurt), but even they seem to know that whether their relationships succeed or not, they have time on their side. That doesn’t make it hurt any less, it just puts other relationships into perspective. The side story of Paul Brannigan’s ‘Ronnie’, who loses his legs as a result of a roadside bombing in Iraq, is underdeveloped, and more of his story would have given the film greater depth.
The heart of the movie revolves around the marriage of Peter Mullan’s ‘Rab’ and Jane Horrock’s ‘Jean’, who are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary when the past comes back to haunt them and cause them to reconsider who they are and what they mean to each other. We always knew Horrocks could sing, and her version of Sunshine on Leith is heartfelt and moving, but then again that is a song I only have to think about and I start welling up. The revelation is Mullan, who sings like a Weegie Tom Waits. Somebody, write this man an album of songs to sing. With the right material, he would be wonderful. Maybe the Reid’s are the very ones to do it?
Because, of course, what raises Sunshine on Leith above most musicals is the tunes and lyrics of Charlie and Craig, The Proclaimers. Scotland’s greatest songwriting team? They’ve got to be considered in that bracket. Their debut album This Is The Story, (which writer Neil Cocker wrote about eloquently in the short lived feature ‘Lost in Music’) is one of the great Scottish albums, full of the songs about love, loss and everyday life. It’s odd to think back to when that first album was released, as it was seen by many as a one off Scottish novelty (“They sing in their own accents? How quaint”). How wonderful that in these passing years we have taken them to our hearts, and know those songs off by heart.
Their music, which could easily be schmaltzy and overly sentimental, is undercut with the darker side of the realities of life, and include those negative thoughts which can creep in even when you’re in love, perhaps especially so. And that’s what director Fletcher understands and has made sure is a feature of the film. The relationships are not easy, and there are times when you are not sure which ones will survive. It’s fitting that his first film role was in Bugsy Malone, because he obviously gets what makes a great musical. They should put a song in your heart and a spring in your step, and you should live every moment, and sing every song, with those people on screen. Sunshine on Leith is a triumph because it manages this in spades. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so; it will make your day.
Here’s the trailer, followed by The Proclaimers at their very best: