Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy
The Sapphires is the rather unlikely story of a quartet of Aboriginal Australian women who form a singing group in the 1960s and find themselves entertaining the American troops in Vietnam. The premise may be unlikely, but it is based on a true story. Tony Briggs, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay, based his script on his own mother’s story.
The story begins in a remote Australian mission in the 1950s where the four girls, three sisters and a cousin, begin singing in front of family and friends. Fast-forward a decade and they are in their late teens and early 20s, itching to escape their rural lifestyle. One of them, cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), already has, and is living in Melbourne.
The three remaining sisters are Julie (the youngest, played by Jessica Mauboy), Gail (the oldest, played by Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (the middle sister, played by Miranda Tapsell). The trio set out to compete at a talent show with the hopes of being discovered. Chiming in with a lovely version of Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again the trio is denied victory because of local discrimination, but they have impressed Dave Lovelace (Irish actor Chris O’Dowd), a down-on-his-luck musician who was hosting the contest. Dave recognizes their talent but suggests that they switch from singing country ballads to soul. As it turns out Dave is a huge fan of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave and his enthusiasm eventually wins them over.
After reuniting with cousin Kay, the quartet is suddenly transformed into smoking-hot r&b singers, turning in vocal performances that would make Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples jealous.
From there, the girls and Dave are off to Vietnam where they find romance, danger and fame.
To be honest, the plot is very predictable and the script is rather clunky. The filmmakers have tried to shoe-horn in moments of political and social commentary (Martin Luther King’s assassination) into what is essentially a rather breezy feel-good film.
While most of the performances are passable at best, Dave Lovelace does add some much-needed credibility to the film. You may have seen him on TV’s The IT Crown or in Bridesmaids. Here, he strikes just the right note and it probable saves the film.
If you go to see The Sapphires expecting to be challenged and intellectually stimulated, forget it. It’s best to enjoy the musical numbers, which are fantastic, and ignore the rest. You can’t beat rousing versions of classic soul tunes like Hold On, I’m Comin’, I’ll Take You There and These Arms Of Mine. (The soundtrack hit number one in Australia) So, go for the music, and try not to let the rather banal script and the dodgy acting annoy you.