Set in 1968, The Sapphires depicts an Australia rocked not only by racial tensions but also by earlier policies that allowed the government to snatch fair-skinned Aboriginal children from their homes and give them to white families to assimilate (the government denied full citizenship to Aboriginal people until 1967).
This mostly upbeat crowd-pleaser — about four Aboriginal singers who get an opportunity to tour Vietnam and perform for American troops — soothes the audience with glistening harmonies and familiar songs and doesn’t always handle the ugly past simmering just below its surface gracefully. But then, it’s not a serious drama in the vein of Rabbit Proof Fence, in which three young girls cross the Outback to return to their families. It’s sunnier, more steeped in nostalgia — and undeniable fun.
Inspired by a true story about the family of screenwriter Tony Briggs, who also wrote a play on the subject, The Sapphires gives Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, Friends With Kids) a chance to take on a leading role, and he’s funny and charming and makes the case that he deserves a big-time movie all his own. O’Dowd plays down-on-his-luck, always-rumpled Irishman Dave Lovelace, who is shaken from his hangover one day while emceeing a low-rent talent show in Melbourne by three sisters harmonizing on Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again. They lose the competition — the racist audience remains actively hostile to them — but they ask Dave to help them audition for a gig to perform in Vietnam.
Dave, who needs the money, agrees, with one caveat: they trade in their beloved country repertoire for soul music, his passion. In turn, they decide to ask their cousin Kay, who sang with them until sent to live with a white family, to join the group.
And so the soundtrack shifts to the familiar strains of I Heard It Through the Grapevine — their initial version inspires Dave to beg, “Can you make it blacker?” — and I’ll Take You There and the like. Conflicts arise. Gail (Deborah Mailman), the eldest, feels guilt and anger toward Kay (Shari Stebbins), who isn’t quite sure how she fits in with the family anymore. Sexy Cynthia (Mirranda Tapsell) tries to get over being dumped by flirting her way through Vietnam. And everybody resents Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest singer and owner of the best voice, who takes over all the lead vocals with just a little too much condescension.
Meanwhile Dave, not the most reliable guy on the planet, finds himself drawn to Gail, who clearly doesn’t have the highest opinion of sloppy, drunken white guys. Surprisingly, their tentative steps toward romance turn out to be one of the sweeter elements of the movie. Note to Hollywood: Not all leading men have to look like soap stars, nor do all leading ladies need to be blond and skinny to make a movie romance work.
The film takes a turn for the serious when the Sapphires lose their military escort, but it’s at its best in the lighter moments, as the Sapphires, white go-go boots and groovy flowered miniskirts flashing, sing their songs of pain, joy and freedom.
Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell.
Director: Wayne Blair.
Screenwriters: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson.
Producers: Rosemary Blight, Kylie Du Fresne.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 103 minutes. Sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking. Playing in Miami-Dade only: South Beach. Opens April 12 in Broward and Palm Beach locations.