Directed by Wayne Blair
Starring Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy
"The Sapphires" tells the story of a musical quartet that achieves some success performing soul covers in the '60s. But the film, from director Wayne Blair and screenwriters Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson, finds its way around the usual clichés.
The flick is based on true events, it's about an all-girl group and it's got the visual pizazz one expects from a period piece of this ilk. But "The Sapphires" is less a glittery backstage drama in the vein of "Dreamgirls," or a by-the-numbers biopic like "Ray" or "Walk the Line," than it is a sincere coming-of-age story set in a fraught environment.
The protagonists are three Aboriginal Australian sisters and their cousin, among them powerhouse vocalist Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and demanding elder Gail (Deborah Mailman), who are molded into a marketable group by a man named Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd) and hired to entertain the troops in Vietnam circa 1968.
With the film set in a war zone, and the threat of violence always looming, the usual standards of musical success don't apply. The screenplay values small personal triumphs over the energetic covers of everything from "I'll Take You There" to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and the adoring crowds of soldiers. Fame and fortune matter less than the human connections that are fostered and repaired on this unlikely journey.
Dave, a burned-out alcoholic when the film opens, is reinvigorated by these women and given an unlikely chance to achieve something meaningful with them in Vietnam. It's another charismatic performance from O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids"), who plays him smart and open-hearted. He's equally believable perched at a drum set, passionately demonstrating the passion, the feeling, of great soul music, as he is in a drunken stupor.
Simultaneously, the flick directly engages with a shameful period in Australian history. As a little girl, Kay (Shari Sebbens), the aforementioned cousin, was stolen by the Australian government and placed in a white family, in what was once a common practice. Music brings her back to her real kin; it is the tool that carves the way toward mutual healing.