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I can’t imagine anyone concocting a movie about four
Aboriginal girls entertaining American troops in Vietnam
in the late 1960s unless it were based on a true story. Other aspects of The Sapphires have clearly been
fictionalized, but the result is a crowd-pleaser that balances irresistible
r&b music hits, dynamic performances, and comedy with the serious undercurrent
of racial tension during a socially tumultuous period. It’s a sly way of
confronting disturbing facets of Australian history without turning off an

It helps that the leading actors are so skillful and
appealing, beginning with Chris O’Dowd as a roguish Irishman who becomes the
girls’ manager; the spontaneity of his humor is matched only by the charm and honesty
of his performance. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens, and
Miranda Tapsell effectively convey the distinctive personalities (two sisters
and their cousins) that made up the unlikely but talented singing group.

The screenplay by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson is based on
Briggs’ successful stage play, inspired by the stories Briggs heard from his
mother, who was one of the real-life Sapphires. Director Wayne Blair manages to
juggle the film’s diverse ingredients quite well, if not always seamlessly: some
of the story points are heavy-handed, to be sure. But whatever nitpicks I could
cite melt away under the film’s infectious high spirits—and that parade of
songs, including “I’ll Take You There,” “What a Man,” and “Hold On, I’m a

The Sapphires is a
feel-good movie of universal appeal, with just enough social history to give it
substance along with entertainment value. I hope word-of-mouth is strong enough
to win it the audience it deserves here in the States.

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