The Sapphires Movie Review
Shamelessly crowd-pleasing, this warmly engaging film is based on a remarkable true story. And since it's topped off by Chris O'Dowd's most engaging performance yet (which is saying a lot), resistance is futile. Surprisingly for a comedy, there are also some startlingly serious moments along the way, as the film touches on racial issues and war violence without getting too heavy.
It's set in 1968, which was just as turbulent in Australia as in America and Europe. In the rural Outback, music promoter Dave (O'Dowd) is looking for new talent while slowly pickling himself in alcohol. Then he discovers three sisters - Gail, Cynthia and Julie (Mailman, Tapsell and Mauboy) - who can actually sing. They call themselves the Cummeraganja Songbirds, but as Aboriginals they're shunned by bigoted white society. So Dave takes them on, giving them a crash-course in soul and helping them secure a gig singing for the troops in Vietnam. Joined by their lighter-skinned cousin Kay (Sebbens), they head into the war zone rebranded as The Sapphires.
Where this goes is both hilarious and unexpectedly intense, and credit should go to the filmmakers for resisting the usual movie structures. Everything comes and goes as it would on the frontline of battle: romances begin and end without big movie climaxes, people are suddenly separated and there isn't time to get too melodramatic even in life-or-death situations. Meanwhile, the filmmakers also stir in an underlying current exploring the civil rights protests of the period in both the US and Australia. All of this adds up to a breezy, enjoyable journey with serious points along the way. And a lot of fabulous music.
Yes, the film is punctuated with soulful show-stoppers that let the singer-actresses shine, vividly bringing their characters into the stage performances. Often these are in make-shift theatres on battlefields, surrounded by cheering young soldiers, which adds a clever present-day resonance. With its sardonic Australian sense of humour, the film can't help but win us over, keeping us laughing with the dialog and tapping our feet to the music. And every now and then it even gives us something serious to chew on.