By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They’re known as The Sapphires, but not because they sing the blues.
The Sapphires is an exuberant musical dramedy, loosely based on a true story and set in Australia and Vietnam, that’s about the real-life women’s singing group that lends the film its title.
The “girl group,” as we used to call them, is composed of four Aboriginal women in rural Australia, three sisters and a cousin, with powerhouse voices – played by Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Sherri Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell, – who leave the outback and travel from racist Australia to war-torn Vietnam in 1968 to sing for the American troops.
They take care of the film’s joyful musical spine, with their splendid cover renditions of popular soul tunes of the era and echoes of The Supremes and Dreamgirls never far from our minds or ears.
The film’s winning comic thrust is mostly in the capable hands of Chris O’Dowd, who plays the group’s drunken manager, an Irishman named Dave Lovelace who has a romantic interest in one of the singers. It’s he, a former cruise-ship entertainment director turned promoter who talks them into switching from singing country-and-western songs to soul music, a Motown-inspired narrative thread that recalls the fine Irish film, The Commitments.
O’Dowd, a star on the rise probably best known as the friendly cop romancing Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, is a wonderfully funny and endearing comedic actor who will undoubtedly have bigger and better lead roles in comedies to come, but his work in The Sapphires at the very least demonstrates his skill, timing, and effortless charm.
The debuting director, Wayne Blair, works from a script by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs – the latter the son of one of the women and a nephew of the other three — based on Briggs’ 2004 play of the same name. Their screenplay certainly acknowledges some of the truly shameful racial policies of the Australian authorities concerning Aboriginal children as well as prejudice the women have encountered from childhood on as well as the pressures and dangers of modern warfare, but neither the screenwriters nor the director lets these complaints and concerns undermine the upbeat tone, instead serving as mere contextual backdrop.
Blair knows he’s making an essentially serious movie, despite a goodly number of hearty laughs, about a mirror image of American racial tension and conflict in the sixties. But he also knows that the film is music-driven. So he avoids the temptation to take his underlying themes overly seriously, yet he never seems to be exploiting them either.
And while the acting on display by the female quartet is merely sufficient – they pretty much let O’Dowd do the heavy lifting, which he makes look easy – but their vocals are smashing.
So we’ll belt out 3 stars out of 4 for a fact-based, triumph-over-adversity crowd-pleaser about a pop singing group from Down Under. If The Sapphires isn’t quite a gem, it’s at the very least a feel-good tune-fest with a conscience, a heart, and one heck of a voice.