'The Sapphires': Tale filled with charm, appeal
There are all kinds of reasons why "The Sapphires" shouldn't work as a piece of filmmaking. The storytelling is ragged around the edges. Some of the characters are decidedly one-dimensional. Scenes set in Vietnam during the height of the war are notably unconvincing.
All of that said, this tale of an all-girl vocal group that comes out of the Australian outback and ends up making a name for itself entertaining American troops in Vietnam is so thoroughly appealing and utterly charming all its flaws just fade away.
The film is based on a stage play by Tony Briggs that premiered in Melbourne in 2004 and was based on the true story of a vocal group that included Briggs' mother. It's set in a time not long after Australia had finally expanded the rights of its indigenous Aborigine people. Yet, as we know in this country, laws can change but attitudes tend to lag a bit behind.
So when we first meet the three McCrae sisters (Julie, Cynthia and Gail) who live in desolate Koori reservation, they are dominating a singing competition with their lovely versions of country-western songs -- and losing because a bigoted judge simply won't give the top prize to a bunch of Aborigines. That's when they meet Dave Lovelace (the terrific Chris O'Dowd from "Bridesmaids"), a former cruise ship social director, whose two loves are drink and Motown music.
He sees the girls' talent, and changes their country sound to soul. He then drafts a fourth, light-skinned sister Kay -- long estranged from her siblings because she was sent off by the government to live with a white family. (It was a reprehensible but all-too-common practice in Australia at one time.)
The Sapphires are then enlisted to tour military bases in Vietnam with Dave assuming, correctly, that their music will appeal to the American "soul brothers."
The actresses playing Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) do a terrific job with songs drawn from the Motown, Stax and Atlantic catalogs and their stage performances are the real showstoppers in the film. That's particularly true of their version of the Four Tops' "Can't Help Myself," which may make you want to jump up and dance (as a number of folks did at the screening I attended).
They also do well enough with the family, friendship, love and war subplots that swirl around their tour. Mailman, as the big sister leader of the group, is very effective in her scenes with O'Dowd as the friendship of the singer and promoter turns into a love affair. But it's O'Dowd who really carries much of the film. His Dave Lovelace is a real charmer, loaded with charisma and wry humor.
That this all works as well as it does is a tribute not only to the cast but also to director Wayne Blair, making his feature film debut. He does an excellent job of papering over the cliches and structural problems that litter Briggs' script by playing up the performers' energy and appeal. His biggest failing is a portrayal of Vietnam that is less than convincing. American race issues are barely mentioned (strange given the context of the group's background) and the troops the Sapphires encounter are so nice, clean-cut and drug-free that it strains credibility.
But deep social commentary is not what "The Sapphires" is all about. Its aims are to entertain and uplift the spirits. And on that score, it succeeds very well indeed.
"The Sapphires" is rated PG for some sexuality and language.
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