When I first caught wind of The Sapphires I was hugely sceptical. An Australian movie? Uh-oh, that’s rarely a good sign (I’m trying to be honest here!). And what’s this – early reviews from Australian press are overwhelmingly positive? Typical. So colour me surprised that I actually found myself agreeing with the bootlickers this time, and trust me when I say that that’s a relatively new experience for me.
It’s not amazing or anything mind-blowingly spectacular, but The Sapphires is a true-blue crowd-pleaser that does almost everything it should. Based on the stage play of the same name, The Sapphires is kind of like an Australian version of Dreamgirls. The film follows the story of four aboriginal woman who, after being discovered by talent scout Dave (Chris O’Dowd), travel to Vietnam during the Vietnam War in 1968 to sing for the troops. The name of their music group is – *drum roll* – The Sapphires.
First among the challenges they face is learning to switch from singing their favoured country-Western stuff to singing soul. Dave quips, “Can you make it sound blacker?” Racism is dealt with superficially throughout but it’s enough to raise the key issues without being too political, allowing the picture to maintain its feel-good vibe. A brief flashback to the days of the stolen generation is the most confronting reminder of the real-world climate that plagued the period, which does help to create sympathy for leading ladies Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell).
Going into The Sapphires I was concerned it would turn into a vehicle for Australian Idol star Jessica Mauboy, and while she does boast the best vocals of the bunch director Wayne Blair wisely lets all four Sapphires have their time to shine. Mailman (who performed as Cynthia in the original stage play) is probably the most experienced actress of the lot and so gets most of the emotional heavy lifting to do. It’s a smart move and is indicative of the intelligent casting that’s been brought to bear. Nowhere else is this more evident than with the dorky yet loveable Chris O’Dowd. His laconic charisma and boozy charm as Dave bolsters and carries the film, upstaging the girls at all turns.
I suppose I should mention the music, which is well done and pleasant enough. Characters only occasionally break out into impromptu musical numbers, but even then they’re almost always short and played for realism rather than flash or fancy. The Sapphires is more of a comedy and drama in this way, as what I remember most about it are the story and characters – fitting for a film made in tribute of real people and real events.
A warm, fun and endearing exercise in Australian filmmaking, The Sapphires is a genuine crowd-pleaser that has the music, characters and charm to win you over.