The success of Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! (2008) and, more recently, Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith (2013) has pretty much made the jukebox musical into the default British film musical form these days. But whatever quibbles one might have about that, there’s no denying the silly retro charms of the latest addition to the fold, Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini’s Walking on Sunshine, which sets the entanglements of Brits in picturesque Puglia to a choice selection of 80s hit pop songs. With its gorgeous setting, its nuptials-based plot, its up-for-it cast and its locals reduced strictly to supporting roles (as eye candy or comic turns), it’s not hard to spot that Mamma Mia! is the movie that Walking on Sunshine desperately desires to be. But I for one found Giwa and Pasquini’s film a good deal more enjoyable overall. The plot is less stupid, the performances are less embarrassing, and, most importantly, Giwa and Pasquini have a better idea of where to place the camera than Lloyd did, staging some lively, wittily choreographed numbers.
There’s plenty of obviousness, of course - intercut hen and stag party sequences set to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Wild Boys,” for example- but also some real attempts to tell the story through song. There’s a great poolside “Venus” that becomes a creditable Busby Berkeley homage , a beautiful beach scene lit by The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” a surprisingly emotional climactic “If I Could Turn Back Time,” and, best of all, George Michael’s “Faith,” amusingly turned into a duet for two ex-lovers. And the movie sustains a friendly, affectionate tone throughout.
Throwing themselves into the dance sequences with great gusto and really acting their way through the songs, Annabel Scholey and Hannah Arterton are terrifically likeable as the sisters whose romantic travails provide the plot’s pivot (the former’s about to be wed to the latter’s Italian holiday romance ex; as in Vicky Christina Barcelona  one almost senses the spirit of Henry James hovering over the premise. ALMOST). They’re gals of contrasting sensibilities, each with something to learn from the other, and the movie devises satisfying parallel arcs for both of them. X Factor alumna Leona Lewis doesn’t distinguish herself in her film debut but Greg Wise nicely updates his caddish Sense and Sensibility Willoughby with a fun turn as Scholey’s still-interested ex.
Of course, the movie has some shortcomings: the economic details of the characters lives aren’t so much fake as non-existent, and supporting characters (including Katy Brand’s erotic novelist pal) are underused. But, experienced with some equally 80s-enamoured pals (and, preferably, some booze), Walking on Sunshine more than does the job. Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and T’Pau tracks requested for the sequel, please.