Review: The Sapphires

Australian films have boasted a plethora of memorable musical moments over the years, with the vivacious sing-a-long segments in Muriel’s Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert among the most notable. However, too few local efforts have dared to embrace the genre in its entirety, making those that do all the more special. Following in the stage-to-screen footsteps of 2010’s Bran Nue Dae, and sharing its sense of fun as well, The Sapphires is the latest feature to merge movies with music. Aiming for Dreamgirls yet more closely imitating The Commitments, the charming comedy combines an inspiring true tale with dynamically crooned, instantly catchy soul numbers.

Adapted by screenwriters Keith Thompson (Clubland) and Tony Briggs (also known as an actor in The Slap) based on the latter’s hit play, Wayne Blair’s directorial debut delves into family history. In conceiving the stage show, Briggs based his story on the efforts of his mother and aunt, who toured war-torn Vietnam as back-up singers. In fictionalised film form, the narrative follows the same path, this time encompassing three lively sisters. Encouraged by well-meaning Irish rogue Dave (Chris O’Dowd, Bridesmaids) to aspire to life beyond their remote mission home, bossy Gail (Deborah Mailman,TV’s Offspring), playful Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell, Mabo) and determined Julie (pop star Jessica Mauboy) join forces with their city-dwelling cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens, Violet) to seek success entertaining the troops.

The feature’s historical context informs its overarching themes, with the 1968 timeframe accompanied by inherent racism and violence. In attempting to escape the small-minded townsfolk that shun their every move, the girls embrace their endearing, unconventional manager, switching from country and western ballads to toe-tapping Motown tunes under his tutelage as they dream of something more than life as outsiders. Upon their arrival in Vietnam, the first flourish of fame and good fortune colours their attitudes until the realities of combat sink in. Yet, as they wage their own wars against prejudice and adversity, the songbirds learn the importance of offering entertainment amidst misery.

Although an air of familiarity lingers over the film and clumsiness infects its predictable plotting, The Sapphires embodies its underlying message. With its energetic direction, sparkling cinematography (by Samson and Delilah’s Warwick Thornton) and exceptional cast (particularly the ever-amusing O’Dowd and feisty Mailman, whose shared scenes steal the show), the feature may not be an underdog endeavouring to achieve against the odds, however whilst respecting the original tale it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Ample lashings of home-grown humour assist in this regard, as does the film’s show-stopping soundtrack. In the uplifting vein of last year’s hit local flick Red Dog, the end result is sweet, sincere, sentimental and spirited, ensuring The Sapphires is a certain crowd-pleaser.

The Sapphires is released in Australia on August 9th.

Director: Wayne Blair

Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens