TIFF 2013: Proclaimers’ ‘Sunshine on Leith’ makes fest hearts fly

(L-R) Actors Kevin Guthrie, George MacKay and Antonia Thomas of 'Sunshine On Leith' pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2013 in Toronto, Canada.
(Larry Busacca / Getty Images)

TORONTO -- How far would you walk for a fun screening? Would you walk 500 miles? And if you were told you were only halfway there, would you walk 500 more?

I know, I know, too easy. But it’s an appropriate question to ask for “Sunshine on Leith.” The Scottish musical is a set of interconnected love stories based on the music of the Proclaimers. And given how enjoyably airy it is, people have been lining up to see it, if not pounding the pavement until they start havering.

The Toronto International Film Festival can be a place of rigorous drama, where even the comedies come with a spoonful of vinegar. But crowd pleasers exist too, and for the past few days, audiences have been treated to one in the form of “Sunshine.” Directed by English character actor Dexter Fletcher (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and based on the eponymous stage hit, the movie centers on a seemingly happy Edinburgh family with its particular set of personal yet musical challenges.

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After 25 years of happy marriage, Dad (and then Mom) learns that he had a child 24 years before with another woman. Big sis Liz is facing difficulties with her boyfriend, deciding whether she should go or whether she’d be the woman who’d be lonely without him. There are other budding romances and a subplot involving men returning from Afghanistan trying to readjust to life at home.

All these plot lines, of course, are the glue that holds the songs together, as characters break out into ditties between and during the spoken dialogue. Many of Charlie and Craig Reid’s most successful creations (across the pond, anyway) are here, songs like “Jean,” “Make My Heart Fly” and “Over and Done With” (the last done as a rousing pub ensemble number). There’s the title song. And, oh, yes, that other one. (Which raises the question: As Scotsmen, shouldn’t they have said they would walk 500 kilometers? More creeping Americanization.)

Though the movie’s songs pretty neatly reflect its many romances, Dexter said in an interview with The Times that finding the lyrics to match the subplots wasn’t easy. “The Proclaimers don’t really write about love. Their love is more ‘I hate my love for you.’ It’s full of this human angst and drama and pain.” Fletcher spent, as he put it “three years wrestling songs into a narrative.” But the more he burrowed into it, “the more I realized the songs were speaking of the characters.”

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The interconnected love stories (not to mention glamour shots of Edinburgh) give it a “Valentine’s Day” and modern rom-com feel. “Sunshine” also comes in a long modern tradition of song-oriented feel-good entertainment: It’s a Scottish twist on “Glee,” a more pop music-oriented “Full Monty,” a less grating “Mamma Mia.” “High-School Musical” is the obvious comparison. Yet the music and dramatic moments are kept in easier balance here, in part because there’s far less of an emphasis on chart-topping showstoppers. Often it’s just one or two people on screen singing their thoughts.

“I was quite conscious of a song landing on the audience too hard,” Fletcher said. “I wanted to steer away from big rolling intros. I wanted the songs to launch out of dialogue.”

Whether the movie, which is seeking a distributor, finds an audience in the U.S. remains a question. Crowds have been adoring it, particularly at a screening Monday where the Proclaimers played. Dancing-in-the-aisles musicals aren’t much done on the big screen, and without a well-known band, they could face an even tougher climb.

Still, films like these have a way of catching on as more and more people talk about them. And the Proclaimers actually landed on the U.S. radar screen in the first place thanks to a movie -- “Benny and Joon,” whose soundtrack all you fellow Gen X-ers will still find if you look deep enough in your garage. So don’t be surprised if for all its Scottish trappings, “Sunshine” lands a deal and finds a niche in the U.S. Which, yes, would make it the movie that’s coming home to you.


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