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.
Is Takashi Miike the hardest-working man in showbizz? He certainly completes a mind-boggling number of films each year. Very few of them get a cinema screening in the UK, so I was delighted to get the chance to see this in NFT 1, albeit on a French print with burned-in French subs and an extra English subtitle above.
For Love’s Sake (aka The Legend of Love & Sincerity) is a live action adaptation of a manga, although it begins and ends with short anime sequences. (It’s a Kadokawa film from a Kodansha manga – i.e. the Kadokawa parent – but produced for the Toei Studio) That’s the simple part of its definition – placing it generically is more difficult. The central character is Makoto, at 18 a rebellious and violent young man, full of aggression. We meet him on the streets of Tokyo, taking on a whole gang of wild youths single-handed. Surprised by the appearance of Ai, a wealthy and very poised young woman, Makoto allows himself to be taken by the riot police. Ai then determines to use her father’s money and influence to spring Makoto from prison and get him admitted to her exclusive prep school. We know from the anime prologue that Makoto saved Ai’s life eleven years previously when he swore her to secrecy because he didn’t want it known that he’d helped a rich girl. She now recognises him (from the scar on his forehead), but he wants nothing to do with her. The other point to make here is that the time period is supposedly 1972. Since a) most of what follows takes place on highly stylised sets and b) Japanese school uniforms and the outfits of street gangs are more or less timeless, I forget about the time period for the rest of the film.
Perhaps the best way to describe the genre repertoires is Grease-style high-school musical meets Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (but without any supernatural stuff) and a yakuza comedy. Various other Japanese generic characters wander in at various points and the whole is extremely enjoyable. The sets really are wonderful and reminded me a little of Suzuki Seijun films from the 1960s such as Gate of Flesh. Several sequences require characters to burst into songs. I know very little about Japanese pop music but they were easy to listen to and the performers were excellent. The major point about Miike is usually the violence and there is plenty of it here, mostly enormous fistfights and kickings. In this film the female gangs are just as vicious as the male and Makoto fights both with equal gusto. I’m not sure if this suggests sexual equality but once you become inured to the violence through constant repetition, it ceases to be violence at all really – more like a form of aggressive dance choreography. (I wonder if Miike has ever seen the British ‘St Trinian’s girls in films – schoolgirls with hockey sticks instead of baseball bats?) The plot requires Makoto to get involved (against his will) with two other young women and Ai has her own unwanted suitor in the form of a geeky character who reminded me of a less quirky/comical Richard Aoyade (Moss in The IT Crowd on UK TV). In the end we discover the real reason for Makoto’s aggression.
Makoto is played by Tsumabuki Satoshi, who I later realised had played the lead in Villain (2010). At 31 he is considerably older than the teenage Takei Emi who plays Ai.Wikipedia reveals that the original manga by Kajiwara Ikki was published in 1973 and was followed quickly by an audio (radio?) version, a TV adaptation and three live action film versions, all produced in the 1970s, which explains the setting.
I can’t really think of a better recommendation than to suggest that the film is constantly entertaining throughout its 130 mins running time. I assume that it will become available on DVD, but if you get the chance, see it on the biggest screen possible in order to appreciate the sets and the ‘Scope compositions from Miike’s current cinematographer Kita Nobuyasu.
Here’s a trailer with English subs:
SoulBoy is a small gem of a movie. It’s a flawed gem because the opening is clunky but then the narrative gathers speed and with Martin Compston’s assured central performance it makes its way to an admittedly predictable resolution – but then this is basically a sweet little love story with an interesting background in one of the UK’s great subcultures.
The Potteries in 1974. Joe (Compston) is in a rut with a boring job as an assistant deliveryman and no luck on Saturday night in the Purple Onion, his locality’s excuse for a nightspot where his dancing fails to impress the girls. Spotting the glamorous Jane (Nichola Burley) in the street he tracks her down to her job in a hairdressers and asks for a cut. He gets a rather surprising cut and learns about a new dance culture in Wigan, ‘Northern Soul’. When he takes the coach to Wigan, Joe discovers that he has been missing out when he meets an ex-classmate and his younger sister Mandy (Felicity Jones). From here Joe will pursue Jane and be taught how to dance by Mandy while at the same time trying to avoid being dragged into trouble by his best mate (Alfie Alan) and avoiding Jane’s ‘protector’ and dancefloor dictator (Craig Parkinson). You can probably work out the rest from there.
There are many good things about this production – and a couple of problems. One of the plus points is the setting in Stoke-on-Trent. For readers outside the UK, Stoke is probably best known as the home of English chinaware and the film includes shots of decaying factories. Stoke is symbolic in many ways of an industrial area that has been ‘left behind’ and forgotten even when the larger industrial cities have been ‘regenerated’. (Stoke is midway between Birmingham and Manchester.) In the 1970s, social change seemed to reach such areas rather later so the emergence of Northern Soul was significant. The new dance craze started in Manchester at The Twisted Wheel and came to full prominence at the Wigan Casino with Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch in Stoke as other major venues.
Northern Soul is a popular dance culture which in its heyday attracted young working-class dancers in the North of England to all-night sessions dancing to relatively obscure American soul records from the hinterland of African-American music in the post-Tamla era. The soulboys and girls were often mods and brought with them and interest in fashion and pills rather than alcohol and in many ways introduced aspects of the club culture and rave scene that emerged later in the 1990s. Although all the original venues are long gone, Northern Soul lives on attracting new young fans and a hardcore of those who have been dancing for more than thirty years.
The film certainly attempts to capture the authenticity of the Northern Soul scene and the official website includes plenty of background material and information about the soundtrack and current live events around the UK. There are some interviews tacked onto the credits that feature original soulboys and girls from the 1970s who attest to the authenticity of the film and the popularity of the scene and the website material suggests that the producers tried hard to do justice to the scene. The dancehall location is in fact the current Stoke hall that hosts Northern Soul nights, but I suspect that it is smaller than the Wigan Casino. The film is a low budget independent and there isn’t really the camerawork and setting to do justice to the dancing. The director Shimmy Marcus has a track record in Irish independent cinema, including music documentary and comedy drama, but the writer Jeff Williams has no other credits on IMDB.
I feel that the love story is what works best in the film, not least because of Jones and Compston (I thought the whole cast was strong). The music was great and I thought the film introduced the Northern Soul phenomenon sympathetically without really convincing someone who didn’t know about it already. The worst aspects of the film were the Stoke-on-Trent tourist clip at the beginning – copy of the Full Monty opening and then the broadish comedy/crime stuff on the near-deserted streets of Staffordshire towns. I had terrible flashes of those 1970s British soft porn films like Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate (1978). Thankfully it soon settled down into something more interesting.
Here’s the official trailer (note that it says ‘Northern England’ – not sure how that will go down in the Potteries):
Isn’t the original version of ‘Tainted Love’ by Gloria Jones just wonderful?
There is a range of material on the film and its production on YouTube but here’s one of the many YouTube vids of the real thing (and another terrific track):
The film is being released in a very carefully selected pattern of specialised cinemas by Soda Pictures. It’s not the way to draw in the multiplex audience, but perhaps on reflection they are right. I suspect that the film will be most enjoyed as a nostalgic treat in which case its biggest sales will be on DVD.
– Now where’s that copy of Len Barry’s 1-2-3 that we danced to at Blackpool Mecca in 1965?
Babymother is one of the few Black British films to receive a UK release of any kind since the 1980s, but even so, it is likely to be better known abroad where it was shown in festivals. In the UK it received only a very limited distribution and has been seen mainly on Channel 4 television. The first TV airings showed cropped images from what is a widescreen (CinemaScope) film musical (which bizarrely links it to the early Cliff Richard ‘Scope musicals such as The Young Ones (1961). The film represents a conscious attempt to avoid the typical ‘burden of representation’ that sits heavily on Black British films – it isn’t concerned with the ‘problems of life in the inner city associated with racism and deprivation’. Instead it celebrates one aspect of Jamaican life in London – ‘dancehall’, with its distinctive musical style and dramatic costumes.
A Jamaican film, Dancehall Queen (made on digital video by the legendary Don Letts) was released in the UK in 1997 and did good business in South London. This may have influenced Babymother’s writer-director Julian Henriques. Some critics have also suggested that Babymother may owe something to the look and feel of Bollywood. Henriques himself speaks about the long tradition of specifically Jamaican culture including the links to the Saturday night ‘blues’ party which often carried over into Sunday church.
The film is set in Harlesden, the western part of the London Borough of Brent, arguably an area of London that has been defined through successive generations of new communities – Irish, African Caribbean and Asian. The plot sees a young single mother (the ‘babymother’) – Anita, a beautiful talented singer who has not found the confidence to assert herself in the dancehall culture, especially when she has felt herself in the shadow of the ‘babyfather’, Byron, played by Wil Johnson (now a leading UK TV actor). But when Byron steals one of her lyrics, she finally decides to take him on in the competitive arena of the dancehall. The film plays this narrative from the musical (which sees characters bursting into song as in the classical musical as well as in the dancehall) against a more familiar family melodrama about Anita’s mother and older sister. This has an interesting twist. A full synopsis and commentary is available on Screenonline. Though the Screenonline account is accurate, I don’t think it quite picks up the unique qualities of the film. Certainly this is a film to divide audiences. If you are expecting the usual ‘social realist’ drama about inner-city London, you’ll be disappointed. But if you like the idea of a vibrant musical with some reality thrown in, I think it works. If you don’t know about dancehall, it is extremely colourful with the performers wearing outlandish costumes (a bit like the carnival costumes seen at Notting Hill or other Caribbean carnival events). It is a completely Black musical, with no white characters as such. Screenonline suggests that this is a weakness, but it seems fine to me. A TV series called Babyfather appeared in 2001. There was no direct connection between the film and the series which both focus on the concept of single parents, but Wil Johnson also appeared in the first episode of the TV series.
Julian Henriques was born in Yorkshire. He studied psychology at Bristol University and worked as a lecturer, policy researcher, and journalist before becoming a television researcher. In the 1970s, he started the journal Ideology and Consciousness (later I and C) with a group of young psychologists and social theorists. Their aim was to bring together critical work in psychology with work on the subject and subjectivity coming out of European social theory (structuralism, post-structuralism and psychoanalysis), as well as continental feminism. He has made documentaries for LWT, the BBC and with his own production company for Channel Four. We the Ragamuffin (1992) was his first narrative short film, Babymother his first feature film. Henriques taught film and television at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, and currently works at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Here is his staff page at Goldsmiths.
Producer Parminder Vir began her career in 1978 as an Arts Administrator with the Minority Arts Advisory Service, moving to the Commonwealth Institute and eventually becoming Head of the Race Equality Unit in the Arts and Recreation Department of the GLC. In 1986, she moved into film-making and began working as a researcher for the BBC. She set up her own production company in 1994 and produced several award-winning programmes. In 1996 she had joined Carlton Television as a Consultant to the Director of Programmes, implementing a strategy for achieving cultural diversity on and behind the screen. Since 1998 she has become a leading figure in the film and television industries, serving as a UK Film Council Board Member from 1999-2005 and setting up Ingenious World Cinema to aid production of films from “emerging markets, including India, China, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina and the Diaspora” as part of the larger Ingenious Media. (She is also married to Julian Henriques.)
Amazon shows that there are still some copies of the Film Four DVD available.
(Notes updated from a screening in 2002)