Among the The Weinstein Company‘s acquisitions prior to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival was the largely unknown (until it was bought) Aussie musical/drama/comedy effort “The Sapphires.” It’s certainly easy to see why this easy-to-digest, feel-good movie earned their attention. With a slate last year that included “Lawless,” “Django Unchained,” “The Master” and “Killing Them Softly” they probably thought they could use a film that’s guaranteed to have broad appeal, and that’s something the first-time feature film from director Wayne Blair carries in spades. And it’s largely thanks to the winning charm of unlikely leading man Chris O’Dowd.
Set against the backdrop of the simmering racial tensions between Aboriginies and white Australians, and the onset of the Vietnam war, “The Sapphires” tells the based-on-the-true-story tale of four sisters who form a celebrated girl group who perform for the soldiers in the battle-scarred country. And that, essentially, is the entire story. There isn’t much in the way of dramatic stakes in the movie (we’ll get to that in a moment), with the tone instead relying on a nearly endless (and probably expensive) array of R&B hits and ’60s era tunes that charted on the radio. But the result is a wildly uneven film, one that wants to talk about racism, Aboriginal rights and racial identity, but continually pushes those elements to the side in the favor of songs and feel-good bantering.
Being raised on an aboriginal reserve during a time when these native people of the land were just beginning to be recognized as more than simply “flora and fauna” has been difficult for Gail (Deborah Mailman) and her younger sisters Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy). Essentially treated as second class citizens or worse any time they head into town, they hope to find fame, fortune and respect as singing professionals. They know they’ve got the chops and when the cynical, nearly perma-drunk (but not alcoholic), keyboardist Dave (O’Dowd) hears them at a local talent show, he takes the girls under his opportunistic wing. With the fourth sister Kay (Shari Stebbins) rounding out the quartet, they impress the military brass at a tryout in Melbourne and The Sapphires are soon on their way to Vietnam.
The characters are essentially one-note archetypes, with O’Dowd getting the most mileage and some huge laughs as Dave, the group’s manager and arranger. Given a solid leading man role to bite into, O’Dowd doesn’t disappoint, bringing a shambling, understated charm that is infectious and a real pleasure to watch. His half-shrugged, deprecating wit and one-liners light up the movie whenever he’s around, almost as much as the tunes themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls are divided into The Angry One (Gail), The Sexy One (Cynthia), The Most Talented One (Julie) and The White One (Kay). That’s right, Kay’s light skin testifies to her being her being one of Australia’s “Stolen Generation,” (kids who could pass for white essentially kidnapped from their aboriginal families, put into foster homes, and taught “white ways.”) This is a minor cause of crisis for Kay, who in addition to grappling with her past, is also the target of Gail’s criticism that she turned her back on the family. But whenever these meaty dramatic subjects come up, the film has a tendency to shift abruptly (and sometimes awkwardly) to a joke or, in the case of Kay, to her burgeoning romance with the army soldier Robby (Tory Kittles).
And it’s the picture’s inability to truly take on the thematic content in any vital way that holds “The Sapphires” back. The first two-thirds of the movie are mostly concerned with the unlikely tale of this group of girls making a name for themselves. And it’s enjoyable and toe-tapping for what it is, but it’s also extremely lightweight stuff. But it’s almost as if Blair remembered in the last third of the movie that he needs to have some kind of dramatic tension and suddenly a romance blooms out of nowhere, an intense (though somewhat backlot/fake-looking) war sequence arrives, a Sapphire member goes off the rails and even more is shoehorned into the final act. It’s poorly delivered, with Blair often choosing to show that conflicts have been resolved, with the step of how they were sorted out usually missing. This is particularly glaring when Gail accuses Kay of playing the appropriate race card — white or black — depending on what the situation calls for. This is a pretty charged topic, but that’s about all we hear of it and by the end of the movie, they are crying on each other’s shoulders, as close as ever.
Though we wish Blair had a bit more conviction in acknowledging the political situation at the time (sorry, using vintage footage of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. is cheap and easy), on the level of simple entertainment, “The Sapphires” does the job it’s supposed to do. With O’Dowd in the lead, and a hit-soundtrack-ready selection of tunes from the Stax and Motown catalogues and more, “The Sapphires” is popcorn entertainment, with some earned laughs and a genuine heart. It’s hard to argue with that. [C+]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.