There are reasons why Wayne Blair's "The Sapphires" (2012) shouldn't work as a movie. The narrative is ragged at times. It's full of one-dimensional characters and half the scenes set around the Vietnam war is totally unconvincing. All of that said, this story is still an energetic, amusing and resolutely feel-good comedy that also happens to incorporate a lot of soul music and dancing.
The film opens in a dusty remote town in Australia, 1968. Three sisters (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell) from an aboriginal family are trying to make a go as a singing group. The McCrae sisters dominates the singing competition with their lovely country-western songs -but loses because of a bigoted judge, who simply won't give the top prize to a bunch of Aborigines. However, they meet a boozy Irish keyboard player named Dave (Chris O'Dowd).
He becomes their manager — provided they’ll leave the fretful country and western and switch to his preferred genre, soul. “Ninety percent of all recorded music is shite,” reckons Chris and "The other 10% is soul.” He takes them to Vietnam to play soul music for the American troops. The girls also recruit the long-estranged half-caste cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) as a fourth member. The trip offers them a chance to round off their music skills as well as find romance. The oppressiveness of war and racism serves as a backdrop to the film’s zippy core.
The movie is based upon a 2004 stage production by Aboriginal writer Tony Briggs. He was inspired by the tale of his mother and three aunts who in real-life made the improbable journey from amateur singers at an Australian mission through to entertaining American troops in Vietnam. Their inspirational tale provides a basic framework for the story on which to add a layer of comedy and romance. The script at times seems a bit of a disconnect between weighty issues and sibling niggling.
Making his feature debut, director Wayne Blair does an excellent job of overriding the cliches and structural problems by playing up the performers' appeal and energy. But Blair misses the deep social commentary and the American race issues are barely mentioned (strange given the context of the group's background).
Playing the boozy manager, Dave, Chris O'Dowd of "Bridesmaids" fame keeps the proceedings bouncy even when the script loses its own fizz. Mailman, as the elder sister is very effective in her vociferous arguments with O'Dowd as the friendship of the singer and promoter turns into a love affair. The characters of the other three Sapphire girls are marginally developed but they provide gentle laughs and infectious soul numbers.
"The Sapphires" is a breezily accessible musical comedy, if you can overlook the cheesy dialogues and few neglected subplots.
The Sapphires -- IMDb