Even with its flaws “The Sapphires” is a charmer. Heck, the flaws even make it more loveable.
This Down Under comedy from Aussie TV director Wayne Blair is based on real events: In 1968 a quartet of aboriginal women went on tour in Vietnam performing soul music for American troops .
“The Sapphires” (that’s the name they gave themselves) isn’t a terribly polished effort…and that’s a good thing. There’s a slightly ragged, hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show quality to the proceedings. Most of the performances are low-keyed and unforced — borderline nonprofessional, in fact — but that only makes the experience more realistic.
And if the filmmakers display an occasionally heavy hand in serving up some social issues, at least the movie has more on its mind than just chucking us under the chin.
Best of all, at the center as the group’s hustling manager is Irish import Chris O’Dowd, a master of drollery who steals his every scene.
Even in a cast heavy with comedy talent, O’Dowd stood out in 2011’s “Bridesmaids” (he was the funny/sweet and wholly original state trooper who stalked Kristen Wiig’s character). In “The Sapphires” he cements the deal.
As Dave Lovelace, a pop music fanatic and all-around reprobate, he’s a slacker before there was a name for them, a deep pool of generally useless musical trivia, and an earnest romantic when the right woman comes along.
He does all this without even trying.
The challenge facing O’Dowd’s Dave Lovelace is to take three Outback-reared sisters and their citified cousin, wean them from Merle Haggard covers and teach them the elements of soul music, all the while defusing sibling rivalries that threaten to tear the group apart.
Each of the “girls” has a very specific personality. Gail (Deborah Mailman) is the self-proclaimed leader. She’s the oldest, the biggest, the pushiest and the most opinionated. Alas, she’s the worst singer of the bunch, meaning she’ll have to accept duties as a backup singer if the group is to succeed.
Julie (Jessica Mauboy) is the baby, notwithstanding the fact that she’s a teenage mother. But she has the best pipes and a fierce determination to get away from the rural life she’s always known.
Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) is the funny one, a smart-mouthed mischief maker.
And then there’s their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), a mixed-blood beauty who has managed to pass for white in the big city but still struggles with the issue of her racial roots.
The boozy Dave encounters the ladies when they appear in a local talent show for which he is providing piano accompaniment. The local white folk are none too pleased to see black faces up on the stage (“Bloody monkeys!”) but
Dave knows talent and is intrigued.
His idea is to mold them into a Motown-type girl group that can win a contract to entertain the troops in Vietnam.
“I may be a little pale on the outside,” he tells his protégés, “but inside my blood runs Negro.”
The screenplay by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson (Briggs is the son of one of the real-life Sapphires) first follows the women as they put together their act, then takes them to Vietnam where they bask in the admiration of hundreds of horny soldiers and barely escape a Viet Cong attack on the base where they’re performing.
Each woman has a story arc. The bull-headed Gail, for instance, finds herself falling for Dave’s charming loser. Kay hooks up with an Army medic (Tory Kittles).
Throughout “The Sapphires” dabbles with issues. The fierce racism of Australian society, for one (because her late mother was white, Kay was shanghaied by the government and sent to a boarding school meant to leach the black out of her). And late in the film there’s a rather unsteady passage about how the aboriginal women react to the news that Martin Luther King Jr. has been assassinated.
I suppose the film “The Sapphires” most resembles — though the setting is wildly different – is “The Commitments,” Alan Parker’s intoxicating yarn about white Dublin kids putting together a soul revue. “Sapphires” isn’t quite that polished, but it has plenty of that sort of heart and quiet observational humor.
That’s more than enough for a satisfying night at the movies.