Sunshine on Leith – Dexter Fletcher and 500 Miles of Feelgood. (Film review)
It’s interesting as you get older and you start to recognise true trends that encapsulate your particular generation, and this is sometimes a good thing and sometimes something completely odd comes out of left field and gives you a total WTF moment. Was it ever on the cards that Gen Xers would embrace feel good musicals made up of songs entirely from single bands that had been important at some crucial stage of development for their generation? Mamma Mia is not strictly GenX, but given ABBA appealed more to single digit age groups than it did teens, one could make the case for it heralding the birth of GenXers, and on it goes with musicals and apparently now, films that celebrate the music of these bands via a surreal jukebox style of musical incarnation that holds cheezy so close as its central premise it dips into the space between joy and irony that (apparently) has become some sort of bizarre version of cool. Not that you can, in any possible way call Sunshine on Leith cool, but it does successfully appropriate the nerd-cool of the original Proclaimers, the bespectacled twin brothers who brought an unapologetically Scottish aesthetic to the late 80’s punk/folk scene that made them a household name for decades. There was always something secretively sexy about the small-eyed famously ugly Reid boys, though if you’d asked this teenager all those years back it had a great deal to do with those tight jeans that once examined intently (and longingly) revealed impressive bulges that led to many sleepless nights in the sweltering Sydney heat.
Dexter Fletcher (another school girl crush for me) has successfully retained that perfect edge the Proclaimers so easily included in their music and with their image when they were in the early heady days of R& R prosperity. Sunshine on Leith is as corny as Mamma Mia, but The Proclaimers is a different band from ABBA, and a foot-stomping joy was always behind all their music, so it lends itself surprisingly well to a musical adaptation, not to mention the fact that despite America’s impressions The Proclaimers were a one-hit-wonder, they produced nine studio albums that included wonderful songs like “I’m on my Way”, “Letter from America” Sunshine on Leith” and of course the eponymous “500 Miles,” which the film includes as an unspoken promise almost all the way through, until we know we’re in a slow build and that relief is on its way. Stephen Greenhorn’s play speaks through, perhaps a little loudly at times, giving Sunshine on Leith a decidedly staged feel to it, but for the most part this is a Dexter Fletcher love affair with a band that has a deep lover affair with a people, and the overriding feel of Fletcher’s film is centred on the beauty of Scotland and the passionate love that culture has for its autonomous self. The Proclaimers have always been “about” Scotland, even today and part of what gives their music such powerful context in Sunshine on Leith is the passionate tribute of George Richmond’s cinematography and the specifically Scottish inventive laced throughout the film.
The performances are all great, the most of which you can say is, the cast are so obviously having a fantastic time that any saccharine overdose is swept aside with a passionate project embrace directly palpable for the viewer. Jane Horrocks and Peter Mullan take it all endearingly seriously, anchoring the project in respect while Freya Mayvor, Antonia Thomas, George MacKay and Kevin Guthrie are strong, fresh youthful voices, though the women hold their own better than the men in the small group of four, which is odd given the original performers of all these songs are male. The Reid brothers do make a small cameo appearance, but for the most part are kept at arms length, but because they are such an enormous presence there is no direct contact necessary to bring them and their music to the big screen. In this way Sunshine on Leith is very different from Mamma Mia, ABBA being a fetishised memory of a band, white washed and appropriated through the years, while The Proclaimers are still alive for so many and such a potent presence; particularly as they are still active, whereas ABBA had long disbanded when Mamma Mia came out. This does make for a different experience, as well as the absence of names as big as Meryl Streep, but in many ways that film already paved the way for any permissions required, so Sunshine on Leith does bask in the success of its famous predecessor, but that isn’t necessarily bad.
While Sunshine on Leith may not be my kind of film, and I did have an overwhelming experience of being in a surreal alternate universe for a lot of the time, there is no question about its ability to get under the skin and give the audience a wonderful time. It’s slow teasing build to the famous song we all know is coming and we all can’t wait for is delightfully satisfied in a beautiful number when almost the entire city of Leith come out to dance their way in the beautiful Leith sunshine as we grin stupidly and try with all our might not to bop along in our seat.