The Sapphires

As a comedy-musical, The Sapphires packs a lot of sass and soul despite a contrived message of triumph over tribulation.

The Sapphires is an Australian film loosely based on the real life story of four Aboriginal women and how they got their fifteen minutes of fame. Going in for this movie, I was low on expectations because the premise is all too familiar. To be fair, the setup is not the most original when compared to Sparkle (2012) and Dreamgirls (2006), both rags-to-riches stories with an against-all-odds premise. But as it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. As a comedy-musical, The Sapphires packs a lot of sass and soul despite a contrived message of triumph over tribulation.

Based on a 2004 stage production by the same name and directed by indigenous Australian filmmaker Wayne Blair, the story is set against a backdrop of racial prejudice in 1960s Australia. This theme prevails all through the movie and at times strongly echoes Australia’s dark legacy of hurtful racism. None of this dampens the spirit of our young heroines who continue crooning country and western music to smug up-nosed white folk. All this changes at a local talent show when the girls – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) – catch the attention of talent scout Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), an Irish version of Simon Cowell. An alcoholic down on his luck, Dave sees an opportunity for himself and the girls and sets up their first gig – entertaining American GIs in war torn Vietnam.

There are few moments of typical chick-flick melodrama that may not sit well with blokes expecting low flying hueys zigzagging in and out of machinegun fire. Although Blair gives us one heavy dose of just that, CGI included, the heart of this film is in its ability to bring back nostalgic music from a bygone era. And it’s a big beating heart that radiates inspiration and overwhelming moments of foot-tapping joy. Australian Idol finalist Mauboy plays the lead singer of the titular group while providing the vocals for most of the film’s soundtrack. I particularly liked the group’s version of I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar pie, Honey Bunch) and Land of a Thousand Dances amongst fifteen odd tracks. Entrusted with the story’s melodrama and romantic subplots are Mailman, Tapsell and Sebbens where each of their characters has a background story from a hopeless romantic to the victim of racial discrimination. Even as these subplots detract from the main story, O’Dowd’s Dave can be credited for the film’s humor, starting with the scene where he teaches the girls the difference between Country Music and Soul Music. The rest is history, and as Berry Gordy once said, and I quote “Motown was about music for all people – White, black, blue, green, cops and robbers”.

There is a lot of soul in The Sapphires and I am not just referring to the fact that they took Motown to Vietnam. If you overlook the film’s racial inflections, this is every bit a charming crowd pleaser that deserves to be seen (and heard). Sapphires are underrated gems. Quite like this film.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.