Friday, April 26, 2013

The Sapphires

Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell in The Sapphires

*** out of ****
The Sapphires is an Australian film, which has found distribution through The Weinstein Company in the states and can be seen in theaters now. This is one of those crowd pleasers bound to appeal to a broad audience. I’d heard nothing of it until a week ago.

The movie is a light-hearted drama surrounded by some heavy subject matter. Set in the late sixties, it is inspired by the true story of a group of Australian Aboriginal girls from the same family who are recruited to sing to the U.S. troops in Vietnam.

The ladies come to the attention of an Irishman named Dave, played by the goofy yet charming Chris O’Dowd (the cop in Bridesmaids). His character is living a near gutter existence in the outback as a hard-drinking talent scout visiting small music venue dives and playing keyboard to accompany singers.

When these indigenous ladies show up to a music contest and sing quite beautifully, he is one of the few people in a room filled with white people (mostly racists), who cannot deny their power. Aware of auditions for a gig in Saigon, they discuss with him their options to increase their chances. Their preferred music is American Country-Western, but he thinks he can get them to sing Soul, a genre that not only fits what American G.I.’s might expect from women of their color, but also exudes a feeling of hope.

Dave quickly transforms the ladies into a Soul group, which happens a little unrealistically fast and could have been improved with different pacing. I think this movie couldn’t wait to get these girls singing great Motown standards, which in their wonderful performances are a strong element in the film.

After nailing the audition, where they name their group, The Sapphires, they excitedly go to Saigon while not so aware of how terrible things are becoming in the surrounding area they will tour. Leading the pack, is the oldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman) whose pride of family and heritage drives her protective and stubborn behavior. Naturally, her character constantly clashes with Dave and the band members, providing the more entertaining banter of the movie.

They travel around the country to sing, while encountering the wonder of being abroad for the first time and conversely, the horror of a terrible war. There’s romance, laughs and tragedy. Like I say, it aims for a broad audience and it deserves one. Its director, Wayne Blair, makes a decent cinematic debut following a career in Australian television. The film’s co-writer, Tony Briggs, is the son of a real-life member of The Sapphires.

This is a movie with a very clear formula but plenty of fun, and more importantly, people worth caring about. These girls are worth admiring for the strength they’ve shown surviving the time of “the stolen generations” and all the hardships from unjust racist laws, which tore apart families.

That is the amazing heart of this film. Despite a story that conforms to everything you can expect about the ups and downs in a music group’s relationship, it is the foundation of a family’s emotional survival that makes this film meaningful. It is a very admirable story.

The music is awesome too.

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