Directed by: Wayne Blair
Written by: Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson
Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens
Musical dramadies based on all-girl singing groups from the 60’s and 70’s is a cinematic sub-genre I’m incredibly happy to support. DREAMGIRLS (a musical turned film) and the original 1976 SPARKLE as well as its recent update have all garnered moderate box office success. And on the airwaves, from The Supremes to Spice Girls, we find ouselves drawn to those sweet, rich melodies. But what is it about all-girl music groups that we find so fascinating? Is it because their stories are filled with passion, art, and drama? Is it because they’re filled with cat-fights and squabbles? Or are they a mirror into our collective soul? The latest to showcase the all-girl phenomenon is Australia’s THE SAPPHIRES. Having earned a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes, this is a genuine crowd pleaser that has a heart as big as its voice.
Based on a true story, THE SAPPHIRES tells the tale of a group of Aboriginal girls who found themselves involved in the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement – two events not often mentioned in the sub-genre. Our journey begins when bossy Gail (Deborah Mailman) and fame driven Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) enter a talent contest singing Country Western tunes. Young Julie, (Jessica Mauboy), who wasn’t allowed to go because she has a young one of her own, arrives at the last minute to help steal the show – which is rigged so only whites can win. At the piano is part-time drunk/ emcee Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, adorable from the get go), who sees that the girls have something special despite their poor song selection. The girls convince him to be their manager and help them get to Vietnam so they can sing for the troops. However, first they must change their look, name, and sound. They also have to convince their estranged half-white cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) to join the group. Rebranding themselves from the “Cummeraganja Songbirds” to “The Sapphires” proves successful. But will they make it, or will war – raging inside and outside the group – kill their dreams?
There’s a lot of fuzzy logic going on with the narrative. It’s not clear why Julie’s parents are so protective of her as she’s already an unwed mother – what more trouble could she get into?! And it only takes one short fishing trip for Dave to get the girl’s Dad to sign off on the plan. Also unclear is why Kay has to join the group and why (outside of latent guilt) she agrees. It’s not like Gail, Julie and Cynthia can’t hold it down on their own. All that aside, the film’s uplifting tone loudly drowns out any cynicism viewers will have. Even though you can see the marionette strings tugging on your heart, you’ll find yourself falling for it hook, line, and sinker. This is a toe-tapping fun time that will move audiences – body and soul. With the same triumphant vibe as many an inspirational Hollywood blockbuster, this could be The Weinstein Company’s “little train that could” – a word-of-mouth driven love train they can ride all the way to awards season.
THE SAPPHIRES’ script by Tony Briggs (who, incidentally, is the son of the real life Julie) and Keith Thompson, based on Tony’s 2004 play, doesn’t veer too much from the tried and true formula of the genre. Though it does hold quite a few surprises (nobody loses it to booze and pills excess), it’s disappointing that it sticks to romcom tropes and devices – specifically how the “I hate you’s” predictably change into “I love you’s.” However, this is where the picture’s endearing charm and swagger kicks in – mainly thanks to Chris O’Dowd’s undeniable, effervescent charisma. I also dare you not to move in your seats during the musical numbers. Those Motown tunes are infectious, as is the girl’s joy. This film is slick, polished, and brilliant – like a true gem.
4 out of 5
THE SAPPHIRES plays AFI Fest on November 5 and 6. The US release date is March 22.