The Sapphires Review

Film Still
  • The Sapphires film still


Chris O’Dowd steals the show in this infectious musical comedy about a real-life group of Aboriginal soul sisters.

It’s 1968 and central Australia is rife with racial discrimination and inequality. For spunky indigenous sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), this means their collective dream of country music superstardom looks set to remain just that. They’ve got the pipes to back up their ambition, but whenever they take the stage at their shithouse local, the crowd is less than receptive.

The girls' fate changes when they catch the glazed eye of lubriciously monikered Oirish talent scout, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a failed musician with an apparently hilarious booze problem. Where the white majority views Aborigines as second-class citizens, openly snubbing the sisters despite their obvious talent, Dave doesn’t see the world in black and white. You see, he’s an outsider just like them, and he too is desperate to escape his mundane existence.

So, with nothing to lose, Dave decides to take a chance on the girls on the condition that they drop the "country and western shite" and embrace the emotional rawness of rhythm and blues. The trio becomes a quartet when estranged fair-skinned cousin Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) agrees to bury the hatchet and rejoin the group she was forced to abandon as a child. One amusing rehearsal montage later, The Sapphires are born.

Billed as the Outback’s answer to The Supremes, the girls are quickly picked up by the army and whisked off to Saigon to give the troops a morale boost. Based on the 2005 stage play of the same name, itself inspired by a true story from playwright Tony Briggs’ about his own mother, The Sapphires is a chirpy musical comedy that doesn’t so much sugarcoat its political backdrop as smother it with a glittery medley of soul-pop classics.

That’s not to say first-time director Wayne Blair, himself a New South Wales native, glosses over the magnitude of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, just that his film is more Hairspray than In the Heat of the Night when it comes to handling the era’s complex social issues.

Although the anger and disillusionment stirred within the black community by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr is poignantly evoked during one particularly dramatic scene. The problem is that the film’s outlook is so upbeat that moments of conflict are frequently resolved before they’re fully brought to the boil. It’s cinema that’s been made to fit that abhorrent modern buzzterm: feel-good.

Still, the bumbling comic patter of Chris O’Dowd (who seems to have snuck a toe in the studio door after last summer’s frockbuster, Bridesmaids), coupled with his romantic chemistry with Deborah Mailman’s crabby mother hen, makes The Sapphires an unexpected joy you can’t help but take a shine to.

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