‘Sunshine on Leith’ movie review

As jukebox musicals go, Stephen Greenhorn’s weaving of Proclaimers’ songs into a narrative is a far superior piece of writing to Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You.

It helps that the songs themselves come from a style of song-writing that isn’t far removed from storytelling, and with a few contrivances the story is able to be down-to-earth and relatable compared with its nonsensical forbears. However, it still retains their feel-good factor despite this.

The story starts in Afghanistan, and is abruptly curtailed by a roadside bomb. It then follows Davy and Ally back to Edinburgh, to visit Davy’s family: his dad Rab (Peter Mullan), his Mum Jean (Jane Horrocks), and his sister – and Ally’s girlfriend – Liz (Skins star Freya Mavor). Davy visits survivors of the blast in hospital, gets used to his new job in a call centre, and starts a relationship with Liz’ English colleague Yvonne. Ally is sleeping in a bunk-bed with his nephew (a scene-stealing nephew at that) at his sister’s. It’s all very low-key (and somewhat at odds with the picture-postcard, helix-geography shots of Edinburgh).

Where the film coasts by is in its easy charm. Ally and Davy singing on the streets of Edinburgh in army gear elicits some laughs from the responses of the public, and Jason Flemyng gamely dances through the National Gallery while largely maintaining a Scottish accent (his Dad was Glaswegian). There’s a steady string of laughs to be had from little details in the background, such as reactions of the public or spontaneous dancing.

However, the emotional beats fail whenever music is involved. Obviously this is a problem for a musical. Betrayals are revealed, difficult decisions are made, and much regret is had by all. It’s well acted, and well-sung for the most part (Peter Mullan has a voice that makes Tom Waits sound like Justin Timberlake, and Jane Horrocks is well-versed in this art form, even if she can’t pronounce ‘Leith’), but whoever decided on those musical arrangements needs to have a long, hard look at themselves.

Imagine, if you will, an X-Factor Proclaimers weekend, where everyone sang slowed-down versions of ‘Letter from America’ while the entire musical kitchen sink demanded your emotions in the background. Like a knock-off karaoke CD, this hugely detracts from potentially devastating moments, leaving the film feeling slightly hollow.

Come the finale, though, we’re back in the enjoyably daft territory with a flash-mob dance routine to (inevitably) ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ by the National Gallery. It’s a cheery note to end on, and as long as you subtract the synthetic strings from the ebullient enthusiasm on display, reminds you of what worked really well in the film. By the time the credits roll, there’ll be dancing in the aisles.

Released in UK cinemas on Friday 4 October 2013.

> Buy the soundtrack album on Amazon.