Movies: "The Sapphires" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "The Sapphires"
Movies: "The Sapphires"

Based on a true story, “The Sapphires” shows us the early career of Australia’s first all-Aborigine girl group and offers up a tasty sampling of 1960s soul music.

As the newsreel clips at the start of the movie inform us, the year is 1968.  When we first see these two sisters and their cousin performing, they’re covering a country western song at a small-town talent show near the reservation where they live.  As fate would have it, the MC is a displaced, down-on-his luck Irishman named Dave (Chris O’Dowd, of “Bridesmaids” and “Pirate Radio”), who picks up on the girls’ obvious talent and signs on as their manager.


But he insists they switch their style to R&B to the dismay of the older sister, Gail (Deborah Mailman of “Rabbit Proof Fence”).  “Country music is about loss,” Dave explains.  “Soul music is about loss too.  But in country music, they’re just sitting at home whining about it.  In soul music they’re struggling to get it back.  They haven’t given up.” 


When the girls spot an ad seeking performers to play to US troops in Vietnam, Dave sets up an audition for them in Melbourne, where they bring in a fourth singer (Shari Sebbens), another cousin who had been snatched by the authorities and placed in a white family’s home, as was common in Australia with fair-skinned Aborigines.  (We first see her at an all-white Tupperware party that looks like it could have been set in Stamford, Connecticut.)


But before they can audition, Dave has to inform Gail that she’s not strong enough to be the lead singer;  that position goes to younger, and far more talented, sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy).  So with a seething Gail threatening the future of the group, the girls and Dave head off for war-torn Vietnam -- which is where most of the rest of this movie takes place -- performing cover versions of classic soul songs at US Army bases large and small.


“The Sapphires” was directed by Wayne Blair and was co-written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, the actor son of one of the original Sapphires.  We don’t find out until the closing credits that none of the singers ended up with a music career;  instead, they all devoted their lives to working for Aboriginal rights, one of them being awarded the Australia Prize.  


Even with its unusual wartime setting, the movie follows pretty much the same path that other show-biz flicks have taken.  But in its favor, it features some peppy covers of R&B singles such as “I Heard It through the Grapevine” and “I’ll Take You There” and a delightful performance by Chris O’Dowd, whose hard-drinking, soul music-obsessed character brings real laughs to the show.  


“The Sapphires” is rated PG-13 for adult themes and language.  I give it a B.