In the vein of 2006’s Dreamgirls, import The Sapphires briskly chronicles the rise of a fictitious all-black female singing troupe, this time comprised of Australian natives and a roguish Irishman who instructs them to the spotlight. While completely unimposing and heaped with clumsy clichés, it’s all more than a little bit charming and benefits from strongly executed covers of some famous soul hits.
Fashioned from rather obvious genre tropes, The Sapphires nevertheless provides a genuinely unique setup and subsequent execution of how these women – three sisters and their cousin – find a measure of recognition. It certainly makes more than a modicum of sense to have this journey set in the land down under seeing as this is from where the film heralds, though having these ladies be of aboriginal descent is fresher. There is no Motown, Harlem or sleazy record labels here.
Furthermore, the venue where this group find their fame is none other than the Vietnam War, performing their newly acquired affection for soul to the homesick American troops. For Western audiences particularly, it’s a unique mash-up of cultures and one that ultimately serves as a character of its own.
The principle cast (and filmmakers for that matter) are mostly comprised of first-time actors and unknowns, and for the spread of talent, it’s all rather impressive. Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell are as green as performers can get and Jessica Mauboy, though used to being in the spotlight thanks to her music career, is equally unfamiliar to acting. Of this family, it’s only Deborah Mailman as the eldest sister who has any kind of a resume, though she does not detrimentally outshine the others, nor is she slumming it by any means.
Bringing most of the infectious energy and charisma however is Chris O’Dowd, who has been gaining some serious recognition with roles in Bridesmaids, Friends with Kids and This is 40. A whisky-swilling Irishman who stumbles across The Sapphires (though not their name at the time – a source of much frustration) at a talent show, he becomes their adoptive manager. O’Dowd scores almost all of the film’s laughs and again adds in another cultural dynamic that is much appreciated.
Less appreciated is the smattering of clichés and familiar story arcs that allow The Sapphires to indulge in all the contrivances attributed to an afterschool special. Will all these ladies find love on this foreign journey? Will one be able to speak fluent Vietnamese at a life-or-death situation? Considering the setting, will there be a shoehorned-in action sequence? Is the Irishman the only heavy drinker? Will these sisters struggle with inner rifts and power struggles? Of friggin’ course.
It’s the latter overused trope that is both the most obnoxious, though oddly is it also the one most unlike I’ve seen before (but don’t think it’s any less obvious or limp). Instead of some sort of self-destructive descent into the world of show business being the driving factor that drives a wedge between the group, it just seems to be petty bitchiness. There is an underlying history between two characters that hopes to heighten the clashes, but for Mailman’s Gail in particular she just comes off as a massive rhymes-with-witch. Of course she gets her redemption, but the writing doesn’t do her any favours.
Additionally, considering the time period, it’s reasonable to expect heavy does of racism, even when we’re dealing with countries often less associated with it. Unfortunately The Sapphires massively overplays its race card, inserting bigotry at the most awkward junctures and introduces it even amongst the family. In doing so it utterly dulls the much-needed message and dose a disservice to the film as a whole.
But, of course, first and foremost a lot of people will be interested in this film because of the music, and it doesn’t disappoint, despite not being a full-fledged musical. Though the numbers are strung together without much of an underlying structure, the covers ranging from I Can’t Help Myself and I Heard it Through the Grapevine always impress, as do the actors delivering them. Even O’Dowd proves he has some decent pipes on him.
For what it ultimately is, and for what it ultimately seems to be vying, The Sapphires is more than a bit appealing. The rifts are well delivered, the acting strong and the execution has enough of an identity to distinguish it from other musical dramas. It may not possess enough heft to always deserve its interesting setup but it’s more organically amiable than most of the movies you’ve seen this year.