Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013)

Sunshine on Leith is a “jukebox musical” (a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score) based on the songs of The Proclaimers (Craig and Charlie Reid who do a Hitchcockian-style walk-on early in the film). As a sub-genre the jukebox musical has been around for a long time and has produced some pretty mixed results. Often, I feel, the filmmakers try to squeeze too many numbers into the allotted time or else the narrative is shaped crudely to the demands of the best-known songs. Both dangers were largely avoided in Sunshine on Leith and, while I have a few quibbles (see below), I enjoyed the film very much.

Spoilers– but no more than in the UK Trailer (see below)

The film was based on a 2007 stage play by Stephen Greenhorn for the Dundee Rep which toured successfully throughout the UK. I saw it and, as far as I can remember, the film script, also by Stephen Greenhorn, sticks pretty closely to the original. The story is shaped around six characters (grouped into three couples). Davy (George McKay) and Ally  (Kevin Guthrie) are two squaddies making the difficult return to civilian life after a tour of duty in Afghanistan (where the film begins). Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Joan Horrocks) are about to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. They live in the eponymous Leith (the port area of Edinburgh) with their daughter Liz (Freya Mavor), a nurse who resumes her relationship with Ally when he comes back home.  She arranges a date with her brother and her best friend Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), a fellow nurse.  Ally does not have parents to go back to and his sister allows him (reluctantly) to share a bunk in the bedroom of her young son, Brendan (John Spencer).

At first, all three relationships seem to be going swimmingly but problems emerge. Rab learns that he has a daughter he didn’t know about, conceived in the early stages of his marriage to Jean with an ex-girlfriend, now deceased. Liz is fond of Ally but has ambitions to travel rather than settling down, while Ally is desperate to establish the family he never had as soon as possible. The problems all come to a head at the mid-point of the film at Rab and Jean’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration (held at Leith Dockers Social Club, a venue that will be familiar to readers of Irvine Welsh’s fiction). Jean discovers about Rab’s daughter. And Ally makes a cringe-making public proposal of marriage which doesn’t go down too well with Liz. The rest of the film is given over to resolving the problems of the three couples.

While the plot is hardly original, I thought it worked well as a whole – apart from the strand involving Davy and Yvonne which I felt was awkwardly contrived. For the sake of symmetry, their relationship had to be confronted with difficulties like the other two couples. Yvonne is given a backstory explaining how she ended up in Edinburgh. She was in a relation with a Scotsman who sounds as if he was from the ready-made stock of Scottish stereotypes, a boozer who could only talk about feelings when sufficiently inebriated. This sets in motion a doubt that the (ultra-sensitive) Davy could, despite appearances, be from the same stock. A fight breaks out at the anniversary party as someone makes a joke at Ally’s expense, Davy tries to stop it but ends up defending his pal and almost hits Yvonne by mistake, making her doubt his true nature. They get over this hurdle but it is when she questions his commitment to her, asking if he would leave Edinburgh with her if she had to go back to England. He is annoyed that he is being manipulated and he says he wouldn’t and she heads for the station for the London train. (London is, of course, about 500 miles – give or take – from Edinburgh so it’s one of the few occasions, when a song is “telegraphed”). On the plus side, it does pave the way for one of the most enjoyable sequences of the film.

Another aspect of this plot strand that I felt was weak was Davy’s reaction when, before the blind date with Yvonne, Ally tells him “this one’s different . . . She’s English”. “English!” he responds with a mixture of shock and disgust. This is played for laughs (see the trailer) but let’s try a little commutation test. Yvonne is played by a black woman and if we substitute “Black” for “English”, we get a very different tone. This is especially unfortunate as, while Craig and Charlie Reid (the Proclaimers) have long campaigned for independence (and many other causes), they are not known for their Anglo- (or any other) phobia. Being English, Yvonne is automatically referred to as “posh” and of course lives in the “select” district of Morningside. It’s all so passé. I don’t recall if these aspects come from the original stage production; if so, it should have been dropped from the film.

Any musical will live or die by the music and the performances of it. I’m more of a “greatest hits” person than a hardcore Proclaimers fan but I felt that the music worked very well, both as sung and as orchestrated on the instrumental sound track. The songs rarely feel crowbarred into the narrative bur arise naturally out of it. The film starts off strongly as a group of soldiers in an armoured personnel vehicle in Afghanistan do a visceral a capella version of “Sky Takes the Soul”, the music and the words fitting the scene perfectly:

It could be tomorrow or it could be today

When the sky takes the soul

The earth takes the clay

The scene ends in a roadside explosion which deprives one of the soldiers of his legs and another of his life.

Next, Ally and Davy arrive back home in Edinburgh (“I’m On My Way”). A double date at the pub showcases “Over and Done With”, a jaunty number I wasn’t familiar with (and which also serves as the background to the end credits). I felt “Let’s Get Married” was one of the weaker numbers but was given a raucous rendition in a pub with the Hibs-Hearts derby on TV in the background. One of the most familiar Proclaimers songs is “Letter From America”, a song linking the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century with the industrial sabotage by the Thatcher regime in the industrial heartlands of twentieth century Scotland. However, in the context of the film, it had a more personal approach with one of the characters considering emigration. (Despite the film’s contemporary setting, the song was, of course, written before the days of text, Skype and email).

Of course the performance of the songs is of paramount importance and there is the perennial problem of singer-who-can-act or actor-who-can sing. I thought Les Miserables was spoiled by too many of its leading roles going to non-singers (as well as the decision to record the singers as they were actually acting as opposed to playback) but Sunshine  on Leith works extremely well with the former. Sometimes (I’m thinking in particular of Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You), non-singers who are good actors and can convey honest and simple emotion do the most effective renditions of songs and this is largely the case with Sunshine on Leith. (The exception is Antonia Thomas who plays Yvonne; she comes from a musical theatre background and has an excellent singing voice). Perhaps the biggest revelation was Peter Mullan who, with Jane Horrocks, was no doubt taken on to give the cast of largely unknowns extra acting heft. In his rendition of “Oh Jean” he growls his way through the song and convinces through sheer determination and he is ok in the ensemble pieces. I don’t really like Jane Horrocks as an actor. She oozes with tweeness, and overdoes the cute little comic “faces” she makes. However, her performance became stronger as the film becomes sadder and more serious and her rendition of “Sunshine on Leith” was quite excellent. It is a song we tend to associate with hordes of football fans on the Easter Road terraces but she invests it with a plaintive dignity.

This blog has occasionally referred to British actors in French films being given (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) or not (Charlotte Rampling) a narrative rationale for the fact that their (rather good) French accents are not exactly like a native speaker’s. Of the six central characters in Sunshine on Leith, three are played by English actors, although one plays an English character. (George McKay, despite his name, is a Londoner). So how are the accents of the two who are playing Scots? George McKay managed quite well and although his accent wasn’t Edinburgh working class but vaguely middle-class and non-geographically specific, it was at least as authentic as Ewan McGregor’s in Trainspotting. The only character given narrative support for a non-Edinburgh accent was Peter Mullan and his character comes from Glasgow. Jane Horrocks’ accent, although you could tell it was meant to be Scottish, didn’t come from any recognisable location in the actually existing Scotland (think Willie the janitor in “The Simpsons”). Some actors can do it and some can’t (Sean Connery!) It would have been better if she had used her own Lancashire accent. It’s not as if Scots don’t marry English women – half of Glasgow used to decamp to Blackpool in July when I was young. But I doubt if these matters will cause too many problems for audiences furth of the British Isles where the producers hope to sell the film, hence the premier at the Toronto Film Festival.

The film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, well known for his work as an actor in such productions as Bugsy Malone, Caravaggio, Lock Stock and Two  Smoking Barrels and Band of Brothers. Sunshine on Leith is his second film as a director, the first being Wild Bill in 2011 (which I haven’t seen).  I have seen some criticism of his direction. Variety, for example, referred to it as “televisual”, which I find a lazy criticism unless it is justified by specific shots and sequences. I wasn’t aware of excessive use of the close-up, for example, and his fondness for the use of rack-focus in shot/reverse shots is not particularly televisual. He drives a relentless pace and gets his actors to derive the maximum juice from each song (and occasionally dance) routine.  Fletcher (with his cinematographer George Richmond) shows Edinburgh at its best – strikingly picturesque and not just the posh bits but Leith as well (although must of it was actually shot in Glasgow which has a better studio set-up and is apparently 20% cheaper). “Auld Reekie” with her skirts on is a wondrous site – especially as the mess they’ve made of the city centre in the ludicrous trams enterprise is kept from view.  Suitably edited, Sunshine on Leith would make a very effective commercial for the Scottish Tourist Board.

The film ended on a high note with, inevitably, “I’m Gonna Be (500 miles). The song is so ubiquitous now in Scotland that if the independence referendum opts for a ‘yes’ vote and they need a new national anthem, there’s a ready-made one (and preferable to songs about mists, hills, heather and tattie scones or battles long ago). Its very familiarity presented Fletcher and his colleagues (particularly choreographer Rosie Grey) with a problem of how to stage it. It was done as a reconciliation song of the estranged lovers in the open air, on the Mound, outside the National Gallery of Scotland. The scene starts off as an argument between the couple with an audience listening in judgment, a trope familiar in American rom-coms (not to mention Richard Curtis nearer home). And after using the song by cutting back and force between the other four characters in a sort of pre-finale, it leads to one of the few all-out song and dance numbers, with Davie and Yvonne making up. Half of Edinburgh seems to be part of the number, including some joyful police officers, on the Mound. (I’ve seen cops in musical before, eg Singing in the Rain, Une Chambre En Ville, but this is the first time I’ve seen them cavorting ecstatically). The choreography is a bit on the primitive side but I’ve always felt that the camera  (with the editing suite) is the most important element in film (as opposed to stage) choreography.  If not all the actors are natural singers, the same can be said for dancers – and  George McKay gamely does his best. The film got round this problem by skilfully mixing ‘real’ dancers with baffled actors who were neither wholly in nor wholly out of the dance routine. One of the actors said in an interview that it was impossible to completely block off the area to passers-by but I think that this works in the film’s favour. There is a short extract below.

I would have liked a bit more reflection on some of the social issues which could have arisen in the film. The Peter Mullan character says that Scots have always had to leave to find work, “always have and always will”. And the effects of the war (at least on the British soldiers) are shown by the soldier – played by Paul Brennan, star of Loach’s The Angels Share – having no legs. Certainly, on of the saddest moments in the film occurs when Ally decides to sign up again. When Davy reminds him how close to death they were, he admits that he’s going back “because they wanted me” – he is not only unhappy in love but unable to get a decent job and a place of his own to stay. But such references are few. Perhaps I expect too much of what is after all a feel-good musical and in that category it certainly delivers.

Now for Filth, representing the ‘other’ Edinburgh.

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8 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    I did enjoy the film and for me it was the songs that were the most successful element. I agree that Jane Horrocks could have kept her Rossendale accent and her character could indeed have met Rab in Blackpool. I’m not sure if you meant to imply that she wasn’t a singer, Des – she did carry a whole stage show and film as Little Voice.

    I was surprised at how ‘dark’ the film was at times – ‘dark’ as in serious – and I think that there were quite a few reflective sequences, so for me the pace was not fast. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work in the first 20 minutes or so but then it seemed to engage me much more strongly. It’s nice to see a Scottish domestic production without Hollywood money but I’m intrigued to see how it might fare overseas. Re your comment on the Proclaimers songs, the film did feel quite ‘old-fashioned’ in its presentation of Edinburgh (but perhaps I mean more ‘realist’ than most music-based films today). Will it prosper where there are ex-pat Scots communities? And perhaps in parts of Northern Europe?

    Has For Those in Peril arrived in Aberdeen yet?

  2. des1967

    No, I wasn’t implying Jane Horrocks wasn’t much of a singer. Her singing was the most successful aspects of her performance. And now that I think about it, she did pretty well in the Gracie Fields BBC4 biopic of a few years ago and, looking back, I actually thought her mannerisms that I found so annoying in Sunshine on Leith work quite well in Gracie! as a way of showing Gracie Fields’ irrepressible chirpiness.

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘realist (in contrast with most music-based film today)’. Which films do you have in mind? Since a musical is almost by definition expressionist, having a large dose of realism is no bad thing. (Think of Demy’s almost hyper-realist musicals).

    I’m not sure we can refer to it as “Scottish domestic production”. Although it was set in Scotland and based on songs by a Scottish band, it had an English director and three of the leading actors were English (not complaining, just stating). I’m not sure about its production status. I know there is a formula used to define the national identity of a film (a daft one as, if I remember correctly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Un Long dimanche de fiancailles was considered insufficiently French and therefore ineligible for Oscar foreign film nomination because it had too much US funding) but, even if the film had been made in an independent Scotland, I don’t think it would have counted as Scottish. However, as I liked the film so much, I’m prepared to accept it as a Scottish film!

    Yes, I’d be interested to see how it will fare beyond Scotland and I think it is doing not badly in England. According to BFI figures, in its first week it was third most popular film, just behind Filth. It probably will have some impact in northern Europe but will it hit the US market? The Proclaimers have a solid following there but will it translate into box office? I hope so.

    No, For Those in Peril hasn’t arrived in Aberdeen yet but I notice it has George McKay who plays Davie in Sunshine on Leith, whom I have just seen in How I Live Now in which he co-stars with Saoirse Ronan (best known perhaps as Keira Knightly’s little sister in Atonement and excellent in Byzantium). I’d be interested in how these two careers develop.

    • Roy Stafford

      Sunshine on Leith, Filth and For Those in Peril have all been described in the trade press and the media generally as ‘Scottish films’ and the fact that they were all released at roughly the same time has been a news item. Of course, Scotland is not yet a fully independent nation so technically they are all ‘British’ productions. They are also ‘domestic’ rather than ‘inward investment’ since apart from the participation of a US company in Filth, they have not been funded from the US. Filth is a ‘co-production’ but Sunshine on Leith is the product of a Scottish-based company Black Camel and DNA Films, the London-based company co-owned by the Scottish producer Andrew McDonald. The film was shot in Edinburgh and Glasgow and supported by Creative Scotland and the British Film Institute. If you applied a Scottish equivalent of the UK Cultural Test, I think it would pass!

      Re ‘realist’, I simply meant shot on ordinary streets, seemingly with the general public not far away. And, yes, I was thinking of Jacques Demy and the Stanley Donen of On the Town.

  3. des1967

    On behalf of the cinephiliac masses of Caledonia, I accept the categorisation of “Scottish film”. As long as I don’t have to accept Braveheart as part of the deal!

  4. keith1942

    So the film has an interesting story and characters. But as others suggest, it does not really explore this. What happened to Andy [I think it is], the army friend who has been severely disabled?
    I found the scripting and direction conventional, as seemed the music. The finale street based number reminded me of an awful mobile phone advert set in a London Ralway station: and there is a ‘dead lift’ from Trainspotting in one shot.

    • Roy Stafford

      The guy who has his legs blown off is Ronnie. I agree that more could have been done with the character but there is a scene which shows him with the others in the rehab unit and I think it’s Davy coming through the outer doors but turning back and not coming in. I think that this is meant to convey that Davy realises that Ronnie has his own life and needn’t be burdened with Davy’s problems (I might have this totally wrong!).

      I disagree about the ‘conventional’ songs. I was struck by how well the singing style worked with the emphasis on lyrics and diction and telling stories. I thought that the harmonies worked well and for me this wasn’t just a ‘jukebox’ of pop songs on the soundtrack. The songs worked well with the mise en scène and the overall approach to constructing the scenes.

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