Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical, a term that strikes fear into my heart. For me a jukebox musical is often synonymous with a thin story, weak characters, and pacing that rushes from song to song disregarding plot in order to fit as many songs as possible into the show. In film form a jukebox musical can be even worse, by removing the live aspect of the stage, it lacks the concert atmosphere that can be fun in the moment. It is a challenge to create a jukebox musical that offers a plot worth following and interesting characters. Sunshine on Leith manages to do this, mostly, for about half of a movie.
Sunshine on Leith is a jukebox musical based on the songs of Scottish folk rock duo The Proclaimers. It tells the story of Ally (Kevin Guthrie) and Davy (George MacKay) two recently discharged soldier who arrive back home in Edinburgh. There Ally returns to his girlfriend, Davy’s sister Liz (Freya Mavor), while Davy falls for Yvonne (Antonia Thomas) a friend and colleague of Liz. The film also follows Liz and Davy’s parents, Rab (Peter Mullan) and Jean (Jane Horrocks) as all three of these couples deal with their future. This portion of the film, where we meet these people, follow them, and see them try to understand where they’re going ans what they are, is great. The film moves deliberately from excellent musical number to excellent musical number, with standout moments being a drunken night out with Ally, Davy, Liz, and Yvonne set to “Over and Done With” and a truly touching rendition of “Make my Hear Fly”. This culminates in the standout musical moment of the film when Ally reveals to Davy that he intends to ask Liz to marry him leading to a rendition of “Let’s Get Married” that leads to an entire pub simulating a wedding ceremony.
But while the first part of the film spends its time letting us get to know these characters and letting us breathe in the atmosphere the filmmakers have created, the rest of the film succumbs to the same jukebox musical pitfalls. After a Jean’s contrived discovery of the fact that Rab had a brief affair at the start of their marriage that led to a daughter, the fact of which Rab has only recently learned of, all three relationships begin to fall apart. From here the film rushes through to the end, forgetting characters exist for twenty to thirty at a time, having characters get back together, break up, and get back together again all in the course of what feels like fifteen minutes. The film here chooses to tell not show, with characters coming to conclusions when we are never even shown them contemplating anything. The story becomes a very frustrating, clichéd mess, which is unfortunate because the film began so promisingly.
Through out the musical sequences remain high points, all of the main cast are good singers who know how to convey emotion in song. The last two numbers are great, a bittersweet rendition by the whole cast of “Letter from America”, and the final number “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” which begins slow but builds in energy until it practically bursts off the screen at the end. The actors do their best with the material given them but it is the charm and fun of these musical numbers that allow the film to mostly overcome its narrative failures. These musical sequences also provide director Dexter Fletcher with his only interesting visual moments, a silhouetted image of Yvonne and Davy during “Then I Met You” being one of them, with the rest of the film being competently albeit unimaginatively done.
In the end, Sunshine on Leith is a film that begins strong but ultimately ends up as mostly forgettable musical. Sunshine on Leith doesn’t attempt to be more than a fun jukebox musical and at that it mostly succeeds. Beyond a few moments when it touches on the difficulty soldiers face returning from war, it never tries to reach beyond its grasp, it knows what it wants to be. It’s fun, it brought a smile to my face, and it was a joy to see these musical moments on-screen and it’s a decent way to spend an afternoon. It’s a warmly lit, well-acted, well-sung, musical and nothing more. For Sunshine on Leith that’s enough to make it a decent watch.
Sunshine on Leith
Directed by Dexter Fletcher
Staring: Kevin Guthrie, George MacKay, Freya Mavor, Antonia Thomas, Peter Mullan, and Jane Horrocks.