‘Walking on Sunshine’: Taormina Review

Walking on Sunshine Still - H 2014
Vertigo Films

Walking on Sunshine Still - H 2014

Now that’s what I call cheesy delicious jukebox musical fun.

The directors of the "Streetdance" films turn to 80s pop for this musical set in Puglia, starring Leona Lewis in her film debut, Greg Wise, and some comely newcomers.

The cinematic equivalent of a hot summer’s day spent at a Mediterranean seashore, Walking on Sunshine will leave audiences feeling warm, cheerful, sticky from too many sugary treats, and slightly blinded by all the blazing colors. If a film could deposit sand in your underwear, this would be the one to do it.

British directors Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini have followed up their locally successful, urban-flavored Streetdance films with this bouncy, mainstream-skewed jukebox musical about summer loving built around hits from the 1980s. Although the plot is as thin and disposable as water-damaged Harlequin Romance novel, there’s enough ingenuity in the execution and sheer enthusiasm to drum up good word of mouth, especially among tweens, teens and the middle-aged parents of those demographics. It will probably need the help, considering none of the players are especially well known even in the UK, apart from singer Leona Lewis making her acting debut in a supporting role.

Shot and set in Italy’s Puglia region, whose film commission should be well pleased with the movie’s advertorial properties, the script by Joshua St Johnston begins with an introduction to nice English girl Taylor (Hannah Arterton, the younger sister of Gemma Arterton, making her feature debut) and her boyfriend, Italian hunk Raphael (Giulio Berruti, The Lizzie Maguire Movie). The two are enjoying the last days of their summer romance before Taylor goes off to university back in the UK, and Raph goes travelling.

Fast-forward four years or so, and Taylor returns to Puglia, cueing a large-ensemble rendition of Madonna’s “Holiday” in the airport, complete with dancing air stewards and choreography involving escalators and baggage carousels which sets the tone for what’s to come. She’s there for the wedding of her sister Maddie (Annabel Scholey, who’s mostly done theater work), who came to the region on Taylor’s advice to get over the latest split with her on-off boyfriend Doug (Greg Wise, Sense and Sensibility) but ended up falling suddenly in love with a local.

The fiancé turns out to be, of course, Raphael. Afraid of upsetting Maddie if they come clean about their past, the two pretend they’ve never met, a charade made more difficult by the fact that Taylor also knows all his friends, including English-Italian couple Elena (Lewis, who gets to belt out the title track) and Enrico (Giulo Corso), and bartender Mikey (Danny Kirrane) who takes a shine to Maddie’s bestie Lil (the delicious comedian Katy Brand).

Just to complicate things, smooth-to-the-point-of-slippery Doug shows up hoping to win Maddie back, prompting a marketplace-set number to the tune of the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me, Baby?”, a song choice that was surely a no-brainer for the producers since the readymade lyrics handily fill in backstory.

All the same, the filmmakers and actors have found inventive ways to make the lyrics of the pre-existing tracks roughly fit the drama, although some tunes work better than others. The selection itself is unabashedly mainstream pop, the sort of songs you’d find on one of those Now That’s What I Call the 80s compilations, and while some viewers might have welcomed one or two hipper, more alternative choices and less sound-alike arrangements, the songbook’s familiarity is comforting.

Although only Lewis and Corso are paid up professional singers, the rest of the cast show off some impressive pipes even if the suspicion lingers that auto-tuning programs played a significant role in the final mix. In terms of acting, Arterton has a sweet sincerity that’s endearing, and her look here is appealingly right on the cusp between merely very pretty and knockout. Berruti’s male model perfection compensates for his limitations as an actor, and Scholey gives good pert, although the Louise Brooks bob makes this feel too much like a calling card for her for a revival of Chicago. The supporting players, generously given bits of business and subplots to flesh them out, are more impressive, especially Wise who’s immensely likeable despite the character’s shiftiness, Brand with her salacious winks and moues, and Kirrane who for a big lad busts some impressive dance moves.

Classical musical filmmaking technique suits the material, and uses lots of wide shots to cover the big ensemble showpieces and caress the photogenic setting. Technically,  the one major quibble is that whoever was doing the digital color correction turned up the knobs to 11, so the tones are painfully lurid and make the flesh tones a bit too orange. Either that or the cast were hitting the spray tans too hard.

Production company: Vertigo Films

Cast:Hannah Arterton, Annabel Scholey, Greg Wise, Giulio Berruti, Katy Brand, Leona Lewis, Danny Kirrane, Giulo Corso

Directors: Max Giwa, Dania Pasquini

Screenwriter: Joshua St Johnston

Producers: Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Caroline Levy

Executive producers:Rupert Preston, Nigel Williams, Nick Love, Al Munteanu, Stuart Ford

Director of photography:Philipp Blaubach

Production designer: Sophie Becher

Costume designer: Leonie Hartard

Editor: Robin Sales

Composer/Musical director: Anne Dudley

Choreographer: Litza Bixler

Sales: IM Global

12A (British certificate), 97 minutes