Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New Release Review: The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012)

Adapted from Tony Briggs' stage-play of the same name, and based on an actual group of female Aboriginal singers (relatives, like the girls in the film) who took their talents to the conflict in Vietnam, The Sapphires was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival in May and recently opened the Melbourne International Film Festival. It hits Australian cinemas August 9.

When talented sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the all-Aboriginal girl group, The Cummeragunja Songbirds, catch the eye of Irish keyboardist and local talent show MC, Dave Loveless (Chris O'Dowd), their lives are changed forever. Already the talk of their town - a quiet Aboriginal mission settlement on the banks of the Murray River - Dave secures the girls an audition in Melbourne in the hopes they can impress and be selected to perform in front of the American troops in Vietnam. Tempted by the prospect of making $30 a day, they enlist Dave as their manager. As an expert in soul music, he persuades them to abandon their country and western style of music and bring in a fourth member - their fair-skinned, city-dwelling cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). Having been accepted, they change their name to 'The Sapphires', and begin their odyssey to stardom.

The Sapphires can't be faulted for its energy, offering up a series of catchy soul beats and lively stage performances and is ultimately a fun and pleasant experience. Despite uneven pacing and oversimplification of some serious national issues - racism towards Indigenous Australians and the stolen generation - not to mention the grittier aspects of Vietnam struggle, viewers will recognise that it is more interested in being a charming underdog story, producing laughs and lighting up the screen with renditions of soul favourites, than it is about detailing such dramatic issues. To an extent, this is fine.

It is the vibrant song-and-dance numbers, led by the very talented Jessica Mauboy, and the stellar performances from the always reliable Deborah Mailman and the charismatic and roguish Chris O'Dowd, that give this film the lift it needs and helps one forgive a lot of the clunky scenes. Mailman and O'Dowd have fantastic chemistry, which transformed their romance into a genuinely affecting one. O'Dowd, almost single-handedly, keeps the film entertaining and gives every sequence a lift with his presence. His doofus-like charm, his natural spontaneity and improvisation and perfect comic timing is head and shoulders above everything else in the film.

These are some issues with the film's pacing, especially early on. Scenes are lengthy, but seem to squeeze in an unrealistic amount, and there are huge gaps in time. One moment the girls meet Dave, the next he is agreeing to devote all his time and effort to help them achieve their dreams, and all of a sudden they are in Saigon. Along the way, Blair makes great use of a montage, which provides plenty of strong laughs, but seems to have no interest in wallowing in what is not important. This is admirable but these scenes feel awkwardly stitched together in a simplified fashion that does resemble the comings-and-goings of a stage play. Unfortunately, here this feels somewhat shallow.

I felt like the film laboured whenever there's a lengthy absence between songs. Jessica Mauboy, shines in the performance sequences but is impressive in her acting debut. Mailman and Sebben's mysterious ongoing conflict is given some light but one wonders if the film would have benefited from not introducing the stolen generation. A run-in with some Vietcong after the group's military escort leaves them to make their own way was meant to be suspenseful, but was anything but, and an attack on the base where they are performing resulted in some devastation, but due to the budget was not convincing at all.

The uplifting finale is a good one, and it is one of the more memorable set pieces, and I left the film with a big smile on my face. Ultimately, this is all the film needs to have to be a success. Viewers will come in droves to see The Sapphires and then tell their friends to see it. This is understandable. Despite the flaws, one can't deny that The Sapphires delivers on what it promises. It is a sweet, spirited, heartwarming tale and a celebration of the extraordinary story of these women. With a funky soundtrack, glowing cinematography (courtesy of Warwick Thornton, Samson and Delilah), and the scene-stealing O'Dowd, there is enough here to justify embracing the talent on display with a trip to the cinema.

My Rating: ★★★ (B-)


  1. Seemed to me that this was promoted as a kind of Dreamgirls-esque kinda sing-a-long film. I can't wait to sit back with the wife and watch this...

  2. I read about it first on Ruth's website and I liked it, maybe I will be able to see it soon, too! I'm in for anything that has Chris O'Dowd in it, he is brilliant!Great review Andy!

    1. He's the best feature of the film, for sure. Hilarious and scene-stealing. Has this natural energy. Entertaining film - not amazing - but succeeds in what it sets out to be.

  3. loved it loved it loved it!!!!!!!! I wanted to walk straight back into the cinema and see it again. funny sad cant wait for the dvd.