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The Sapphires

2012 | 103 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

The Sapphires


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Theatrical release date

 22 March, 2013
 07 November, 2012

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The Sapphires Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, January 17, 2013

“The Sapphires” is such an earnest film with a distinct soulful beat, it’s easy to forgive its occasional heavy-handed screenwriting and abysmal third act. For the most part a cheery, pleasingly feisty musical comedy set during an era of powerhouse pop songs, the feature is almost too good to be true during the opening hour, delivering broad audience-pleasing moments while shaping amusing personalities, getting the movie up to speed with laughs and heavenly tunes. The party doesn’t carry to the end, but there’s enough gaiety and whirlwind plotting to sustain an upbeat attitude about the whole endeavor, even when director Wayne Blair seems utterly determined to exit the effort on a sour note.

After a traumatic incident in 1958 squashed their dreams of singing as a group, sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) have continued their quest for stardom a decade later, while youngest Julie (Jessica Mauboy), sidelined with a baby, is determined to assert herself as a lead vocalist. Growing up Aboriginal in rural Australia, the girls find themselves subjected to racist attitudes, yet their voices manage to impress lowlife Dave (Chris O’Dowd), who accepts managerial duties, helping the ladies acquire their estranged cousin Kay (Sheri Sebbens) and come together as The Sapphires. Booking a tour of military camps in Vietnam, Dave looks to keep the volatility of the group in check as the singers are exposed to forward African-American men and the true price of war, while keeping a special eye on Gail, the “momma bear” of the band, whose stubbornness threatens to disturb the good times as The Sapphires charm the troops.

Think of “The Sapphires” as a kissing cousin to Alan Parker’s 1991 charmer, “The Commitments,” only instead of poor Irish residents banding together in the name of soul, we have Aboriginal characters also seeking the same salvation. The films are identical in many ways, yet “The Sapphires” takes off on a few interesting diversions, isolating the discomfort of prejudice and the uneasiness of sisterhood, observing the group work through their own drama as their surroundings in Vietnam grow increasingly dangerous. Adapted from the play by Tony Briggs and co-scripted by Keith Thompson, the feature has a distinct cultural thumbprint and a drive to entertain the socks off audiences, with the first half truly a marvel of snappy entertainment, establishing these combustible personalities, their overseas adventure into a war zone, and ladies’ male interests now that remote farm life has been put on hold, taking a full lungful of the world and its possibilities for the first time in their lives.

The set-up for “The Sapphires” is fueled on joy and surprise, a bewitching brew for any picture, and this one has the benefit of a superb soundtrack, featuring hits from the likes of Otis Redding and Sam & Dave. There’s also a vibrant cast, a few carrying over from the original theatrical production, giving the screen a lived-in feel, with particular attention to Mailman and her commanding presence -- a blend of unearthed sexuality and military general. Her scenes with O’Dowd (who mercifully eases off his improvisational appetites) are a delight. There’s certainly a broadness to “The Sapphires” that helps it to reach the back row, but it’s earned through confidence and a forward momentum, working through scenes of rehearsal and performance, while the Vietnam adventure is convincingly sold through visual effects and period costuming, leading to a few lively sequences.

Despite the finger-snap timing of the early going, “The Sapphires” eventually comes down to Earth. Labored developments involving Viet Cong violence and Kay’s confused racial designation are taxing, halting the flow of the film. Blair mangles the subtlety of the subplot, even going as far as to include a speech from Martin Luther King, Jr. in the climax, making sure everyone on the theater understands that bigotry is wrong and Kay’s displaced life (shades of “Rabbit-Proof Fence”) was a terrible violation. It’s a valiant message pounded into a picture that has no use for the superfluous weight, with the movie doing just fine concentrating on the group dynamic and the vibrant behavior of these defined women as they face an impossible sea change in their sheltered lives. “The Sapphires” has soul and blips of joy, but it misjudges its workload, taking on more drama than it needs to make a significant impression.

Starring: Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director: Wayne Blair

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