In the tradition of films like Red Dog, 2012′s The Sapphires is a sweet, entertaining Aussie feature destined to win the hearts and minds of the Australian movie-going public. On a basic level, the film is best described as an amalgam of Cool Runnings and Dreamgirls with an ocker twist, all set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Directed by Aboriginal actor Wayne Blair, the movie is an adaptation of the stage show of the same name by Tony Briggs (which actually starred Blair). Briggs based his show on the experiences of his mother, who was part of an all-Aboriginal singing group which toured Vietnam to entertain the soldiers during the late 1960s. What’s so great about The Sapphires is that it’s not afraid to touch upon the racial issues of the turbulent period within a dramatic story, yet the film possesses a marvellous sense of fun; it’s sassy, breezy and frequently side-splitting. Not to mention, the soundtrack is outstanding.
In 1968, Aboriginal sisters Gail (Mailman) and Cynthia (Tapsell) flaunt their impressive singing chops at a talent quest at a local pub. While the girls are shunned by the bigoted townsfolk, scruffy Irish musician Dave (O’Dowd) sees potential in them. With the girls’ talented younger sister Julie (Mauboy) also wanting to perform, and with the girls managing to recruit long-estranged cousin Kay (Sebbens), Dave agrees to manage the group. Calling themselves The Sapphires, the group seek the opportunity to entertain the American soldiers in Vietnam. Following a successful audition, The Sapphires soon find themselves jetting overseas, where they’re an enormous hit.
At a brisk 95 minutes, The Sapphires tells a great story in an efficient manner, and director Wayne Blair keeps the pace extremely taut. Admittedly, the narrative does seem to move too quickly from time to time (Dave’s decision to help the girls doesn’t feel entirely organic), but the script’s brevity is otherwise appreciated. Furthermore, The Sapphires is deeper than most fluffy mainstream films – it introduces serious questions about racism and the pointlessness of the Vietnam War, not to mention it touches upon the stolen generations and issues of racial identity. The only problem with The Sapphires is one of tone. The picture concerns itself with comedy and drama, but sometimes it’s genuinely difficult to figure out what Blair is shooting for (a supposedly serious confrontation between The Sapphires and Vietcong soldiers seems somewhat on the comedic side, for some reason). On other occasions, the tonal changes are too abrupt and jarring when Blair should have eased into the overtly dramatic stuff.
For a small Australian film, The Sapphires possesses unexpectedly excellent production values. Its authenticity is off the charts – the recreation of ’60s-era Australia is spot-on, and scenes which take place in Vietnamese war zones give big-budget blockbusters a run for their money. It isn’t long before you stop focusing on the astonishing period detail and just believe that it takes place in its specified time period. Additionally, Warwick Thornton’s skilful cinematography affords the film a beautiful, colourful look befitting of the picture’s uplifting vibe. Topping this off is the wonderful soundtrack - The Sapphires is filled to the brim with top-flight songs, keeping the picture bright and entertaining throughout.
In terms of acting, Chris O’Dowd is an absolute standout here with a performance that’s charming, hilarious and effectively dramatic. Just like in last year’s Bridesmaids, O’Dowd is a scene-stealer whose natural sweetness and charisma shows that he has the potential to be a true Hollywood star. Furthermore, all of the girls are terrific; Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell share such a natural camaraderie that you can easily believe them as a family. What’s great about the actors is their capacity to handle both the dramatic and comedic elements inherent in the narrative.
Just like the classic soul songs that the girls perform, The Sapphires is an infectiously fun motion picture overflowing with feel-good charm. If you’re seeking a feel-good movie, this fits the bill with aplomb. As the end credits begin to roll, you’ll have tears running down your cheeks, your heart will be warm, and you’ll have a big smile on your face. No mean feat. If a film can achieve this dizzying prospect, it’s definitely worth seeing.
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