NOTE: This review originally ran on May 21, 2012. I am re-running it now as it hits theaters this weekend.
Outside of largely being a comedy with musical elements, The Sapphires does have a few things to say about race and the treatment of the “Stolen Generation” of Australia’s Aborigines. But, for the most part, it’s just a crowd-pleasing story of four young, talented Aborigine girls given the opportunity to sing for the troops in Vietnam under the guidance of their kind-hearted, soul-loving, lost-in-his-own-way manager played by Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) who steals the show and proves necessary for it to succeed.
Picked up by The Weinstein Co. in advance of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Sapphires suddenly became something worth seeking out. Directed by first time feature helmer Wayne Blair and written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, the latter of which is the son of one of the four women that inspired the story, this is a feel good movie through-and-through. It is a bit messy in its telling and overly melodramatic in its conclusion, but the level of softball entertainment it provides goes down easy and leaves you smiling.
Set in 1968, the film begins with an introduction giving the audience a brief background on the light-skinned Australian Aborigines, stolen from their homes and raised in white families and taught “white ways” in hopes the black Aborigines would eventually die out. This idea eventually becomes more of an aside, but does help in setting the stage as we meet Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Kay (Shari Sebbens).
Things begin as sisters, Gail, Julie and Cynthia make way for town to compete in a talent competition, which is where they eventually meet Dave (O’Dowd). Dave is described as a talent scout in the synopsis, but he seems best described as a lover of music with a tendency for the bottle, who is eventually convinced (via the promise of money) to help this group of girls out in securing a job singing for the troops in Vietnam. There is, however, one condition. They must drop their country music ways and embrace soul music if Dave is to mold them into the group they are to become. They accept.
Kay enters the picture as a member of the “Stolen Generation” and a cousin to the three sisters. A feud between her and Gail is hinted at, but differences are set aside as the group practices and is eventually heading to Saigon. Over the course of several stops, the girls wow the troops, get caught in battle, experience love, loss, togetherness and every other melodramatic note found in similar such movies. The key to making it work is a script that is in no way a masterwork, but does a solid job in creating characters you’re open to accepting even if they are a bit cliched.
Gail is the mama bear of the bunch, Cynthia is the sassy sister, Julie is the youngest and most talented of the group and Kay’s additions are more than understood by the descriptions I’ve given. Then there’s Dave, a white boy with soul in his heart. He bonds with the girls in ways you’d imagine, but O’Dowd’s performance is just as inviting here as it was as the Irish love interest in Bridesmaids. He’s funny, charming, clumsy and makes his own share of mistakes, but it’s his heart, sarcasm and free-spirited attitude that wins out.
Narratively, if you wanted to, you could tear every frame of this film apart and overlook how much fun it is, with solid musical numbers and laughs aplenty. The ending is, admittedly, a bit of a forced melodramatic mess that actually could have been cut entirely and ended about 10 minutes or so earlier, but it wouldn’t have had the emotional punch that is going to win general audiences over when it finally hits theaters.
To that point, should the Weinsteins position this properly, and market it well, The Sapphires could be a rousing stateside success. It’s good music, good performances and good fun and should play well across several demographic quadrants.