Movie Review: The Sapphires

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The Sapphires | Director Wayne Blair | Score: 5.5

If movies about music and musicians can be said to have one particular recurring trope, it’s that they far too often require the soundtrack to power them through every obstacle in the film’s path. We get it, music can solve almost any ills (especially if it comes from the heart!), but in the meantime, it’s like the films themselves rely on the music cover up any gaping deficiencies elsewhere.

Wayne Blair’s film, based on a true story, about three young Aborigine sisters and their cousin forming a girl band and touring Viet Nam at the height of both the war and the civil rights movement in the late ’60s, throws a veritable kitchen sink of issues at their heroines — prejudice, sexism, war, poverty, social injustice and, naturally, love — but good soul tunes, and their fine singing voices, carry them through with nary a scratch.

The young women — Gail (Deborah Mailman), the eldest and least-talented musically, but the glue that holds them all together; Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), the “sexy” one, who wants very much to get in trouble with boys; Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the most talented singer, but also the most petulant; and Kay (Shari Sebbens), the girls’ fair-skinned cousin, who was snatched off their reservation and “given” to some white parents in Melbourne — first meet up with Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a sloppy drunk working half-assed musician jobs, at a shady talent contest in the nearest town to the girls’ reservation. They lose the contest — we are to understand the prejudice in Australia at the time was still rampant — but get the idea that they could form a group together under Dave’s management and tour Viet Nam to entertain the U.S. troops stationed there.

One problem: The girls, whose musical aptitude comes from their doting mother, only know country songs. Dave correctly surmises that soul is the way to go for this particular gig and commences teaching them the basics of the genre. Before long, of course, the women, now dubbed The Sapphires, tighten up their game and take Indochina by storm.

Technically, plenty of other things happen at this point, as the women and their backing band embark on a whirlwind tour of the war-torn region, but nothing terribly much leaves a bruise. Friendships are re-kindled, sisterhood proves indefatigable and love begins to blossom between two unlikely sources (though you will likely see it coming a mile away).

It can be said the film is big hearted, and treats its characters with respect bordering on reverence (for good reason: It turns out co-writer Tony Briggs is the son of one of the original women), but it can also be said everything feels lost in service to the soundtrack, which is chock filled with such film-friendly standards as “I Heard it through the Grapevine,” “What a Man,” and “I’ll Take You There,” and unlike Les Miz, it is very easy to tell none of the music is sung live, and only one of the actresses (Jessica Mauboy, who does have impressive pipes) are actually singing the tunes themselves. What we have here, then, is a kind of Dreamgirls meets The Commitments, with the soundtrack asked to do much of the film’s emotional heavy lifting.

At one point, Dave makes a point to the girls about the difference between country and soul. Both genres are about loss, but country songs, he explains, people get their hearts broken and “they’ve given up” and are just “whining about it.” In soul, even if they get their hearts broken, they still are holding onto hope that they can make things right again. They don’t cave in, in other words, they fight for their love and happiness, even in the face of total failure.

The movie itself, by contrast, can be said to be light and sort of bouncy, the kind of thing you’ll doubtless see on standard cable channels for years to come (it comes as absolutely no surprise that this film is adapted from the stage show of the same name). There’s no dishonor in that, exactly, but one wishes it had dabbled a bit more in the darker side of soul music, a bit more shake, rattle and roll, then so meekly settling for a steady diet of sugar pie and honey bunch.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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