The Sapphires was a major hit in Australia and recently swept the Australian Film Institute’s AACTA Awards, picking up 11 gongs. However it’s struggled to find a huge audience outside its home country, despite the presence of Chris O’Dowd. It’s a bit of a shame, as while it’s not amazing, it’s a sweet, entertaining movie that tells an interesting true story.
From their youth, Gail, Julie and Cynthia have sung together, although due to the fact they’re aborigines, they’ve had difficulty getting anyone outside their own community to take any notice. In 1968 they meet the slightly schlubby Dave (O’Dowd), a man who’s down on his luck but who knows music. The girls have found an advert asking for acts to audition to play for US troops in Vietnam. They think that perhaps with Dave as their manager, they might have a chance of being taken seriously as a singing group.
There’s also a fourth member of their original childhood line-up. However the light-skinned Kay got caught up in the Australian government’s policy of taking aboriginal children, particularly mixed-race children, away from their parents, and so she’s been raised by white people. If they can all get past the barriers that have grown between the girls, they may be able to reunite and head for Vietnam – where they’ll be a real music group, even if they are in a war zone.
The film is based on a play, which in turn is based on a true story, and an incredibly true story it is too. There’s a delicate balance the movie has to find between fun, easy musical entertainment and more serious issues such as the Stolen Generation and the lack of opportunities for Aboriginal people in the 1960s – not to mention the civil rights fight going on around the world at the time and the dangers of the war in Vietnam.
It’s a balance the film doesn’t always handle perfectly. Indeed there are moments when it seems to forget about the issues at its heart, and then suddenly remembers and has to slightly heavy-handedly remind us it’s not all fun and games. However this approach does help to ensure that it’s always easily entertaining, with a good sense of humour (helped by the always good value Chris O’Dowd) and fast pace, while letting the audience knows there are real issues going on under what often seems like lightweight fun.
There’s also plenty of classic soul music. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the budget went on buying the rights to the likes of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, ‘Who’s Loving You’, ‘Soul Man’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)’ and ‘In The Sweet Bye And Bye’. Most of these get a pretty decent girl group makeover by The Sapphires. They’re certainly a talented quartet, with Deborah Mailman in particularly excellent as the feisty, big-mouthed Gail.
Overall Verdict: It’s not the best movie to ever come out of Australia, but The Sapphires is an entertaining one, mixing up the amusement and fun with a few more serious points. And Chris O’Dowd is always worth a watch.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac