'The Sapphires' is a diamond in the predictable rough
05:00 AM, Mar 21, 2013
Despite some predictable facets, The Sapphires shines brightly.
A potent combination of rousing music, appealing performances and an uplifting story renders this film-festival favorite (* * * out of four; rated PG; opens Friday nationwide) nearly impossible to resist.
While Australian director Wayne Blair’s film can feel simplistic, somehow that adds to the overall charm. Ditto for the energetic newcomers who make up The Sapphires, a thoroughly appealing Motown-inspired girl group.
Adapted from a 2005 play by Tony Briggs, the story is based loosely on Briggs’ Aboriginal family, specifically his mother and three aunts.
Initially, three sisters enter an outback talent contest, singing lilting country-Western harmonies and outshining the competition. A bigoted judge ignores their talents. But the event proves pivotal. It’s there that they connect with Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a scruffy keyboard player, and forge an association that will change all of their lives. Transplanted Irishman Dave encourages the girls to abandon their penchant for lovelorn country tunes in favor of exuberant, hip-shaking soul music. A wise move, that.
It’s a simple formula, according to Dave: “Ninety percent of all recorded music is (trash),” he tells the girls drolly. “The other 10% is soul.”
This spirited tale is set in 1968, when indigenous Australians were facing a similar fight for civil rights as black Americans.
The girls answer an ad to perform for U.S. troops in Vietnam and are accompanied overseas by Dave, who becomes their manager. The Sapphires don white go-go boots and spangly mini-dresses and sing their hearts out. They wow the servicemen with their terrific R&B covers and learn lessons about family, friendship, love and war.
O’Dowd, best-known as the cop who romances Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, is a charmer as the boozy, warmhearted Dave. He comes up with the girls’ repertoire, never missing a beat in his assessment of their talents. The Aussie newcomers are standouts, particularly Deborah Mailman, who plays Gail, a feisty big sister/mother hen whose relationship with Dave builds to a powerful friendship and eventually an abiding love.
Australian Idol alum Jessica Mauboy plays Julie, the teenage lead singer with amazing pipes. Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) parties a little too heartily, much to the consternation of big sister Gail.
Serious issues are glossed over a bit too easily, however. Cousin Kay (Shari Sebbins) has spent most of her life passing as white, after having been removed as a child by the government and relocated to live with a white family. Estranged most of their lives, Kay falls back in with her cousins with surprising ease and then embarks on a romance with a black pilot in Vietnam. Her character’s arc is missing some necessary soul-searching. Still, it’s hard for audiences not to appreciate her efforts to reconnect with her family and native roots.
Performing as the Vietnam War rages is an undeniably dangerous gig. Bombs are dropped during one of The Sapphires’ performances in the countryside, but loose ends are tied up rather neatly.
Fortunately, the fabulous music obscures the film’s rough patches. The Sapphires’ rendition of Linda Lyndell’s What a Man is particularly soulful, as is their take on The Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch).
Celebrating changing attitudes toward racial inequality, The Sapphires is a bouncy tribute to the ’60s and a testament to the transcendent vitality of the era’s great music.
Sapphires proves to be a real gem