The Sapphires (The Weinstein Company, PG-13)

sapphires 75Sassy, funny characters, dryly biting humor delivered by a good cast, a touch of romance, and a great soundtrack make this film a whole lot of fun.

 

 

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Three facts about 1967: Girl bands like the Supremes ruled the music airwaves; the Vietnam War ruled the news; and Australia was ruled by restrictions on Aborigines, who until then were classified as part of the “flora and fauna,” not even considered human beings. The Australian film The Sapphires opens with that latter sad fact, but combines the other two bits of history into a surprising charmer about four Aborigine girls who form a band and become a hit entertaining the troops in Vietnam, as Australia’s answer to the Supremes.

The showbiz success story is familiar, but the strong cast, fresh setting, and true-story elements make The Sapphires a crowd-pleaser, and a film with real heart. Inspired by the stories of four real women, writer Tony Briggs’ mother and aunts, the film version was adapted from a successful stage play. The four ambitious, talented, small-town girls are also sharp-tongued, plain-spoken characters; their backstory gives us a glimpse of Australian history, and the film’s fabulous ’60s Motown soul soundtrack adds appeal. The film was a big hit at Cannes last year and it debuted here at last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award for best narrative feature.

Sassy, funny characters, dryly biting humor delivered by a good cast, a touch of romance, and a great soundtrack make this film a whole lot of fun. There is nothing shy and retiring about Gail (the wonderful Deborah Mailman), the oldest of three Aborigine sisters and the forthright leader of their band. She and her sisters—tiny, sexy Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and golden-voiced youngest sister Julie (Australian pop star Jessica Mauboy)—live with their lively extended family on a dusty rural mission, one of two kinds of places where Aborigines are permitted to live in segregated 1967 Australia.

Despite the restrictions placed on them, these young women are determined to show off their musical ability at a local talent-show competition in a small town nearby. At the contest, the girls face prejudice and snubs from the locals, but the talented singers catch the eye of the down-on-his-luck, hard-drinking band manager, Dave (Chris O’Dowd), who was hired to run the talent contest. With a plan to entertain American troops in nearby Vietnam, the sisters recruit their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who is “passing” as white in another town. Their quest for music success launches the girls and manager Dave on the adventure of a lifetime.

The Sapphires combines humor, likeable, wise-cracking characters, romance, and some terrific soul music with a dash of social commentary. The film gives us snippets of family life in the poor, rural Aborigine mission. Cousin Kay had been taken away government authorities as a child to be raised by a white family, part of an infamous program to assimilate light-skinned Aborigine children into “white” Australian society. The mixture of humor and the lives of marginalized native peoples suggests another independent film, Smoke Signals, but The Sapphires is a lighter movie, much more romantic in tone.

The plot is often predictable, but performances are the real key to this heartfelt film. O’Dowd, who is familiar to many from Bridesmaids, delivers a terrific, very appealing performance as Dave. Mailman is a tart-tongued comic gem, engaging in battles of words and wills with O’Dowd’s Dave. These two actors do a lot to lift the film above its familiar plot. While these two give the film most of its dramatic arc, the ensemble acting shines, as well.

Sprinkled throughout are wonderful musical performances, belting out some ’60s hits with style and all the sexy dance moves of girl bands of the era. The band’s sequined, tight, and short ’60s costumes and dance moves capture the era perfectly, and the whole film is aided by that wonderful soundtrack.

Although the true story turns a bit corny at the end, it is redeemed by its epilogue, which offers photos of the real women and a list of their impressive, groundbreaking accomplishments as adults in Australia, after their musical youth.

A charmer to its core, the crowd-pleasing The Sapphires is a ticket to solid, feel-good entertainment. | Cate Marquis

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