Film Review: The Sapphires

This familiar but supremely well-told and produced tale of the unlikely rise of an Aboriginal female pop group in the Vietnam War-era is feel-good entertainment at its best. Performances, solid script and great music all hit the high notes.

Inspired by a true story, The Sapphires, teeming with R&B and other rock hits of the late ’60s and early ’70s, might ring too tidy and contrived to be mostly true, but audiences won’t care because the film delivers that tricky equation of smart, satisfying entertainment.

Wayne Blair directed this rollicking and rowdy delight focusing on the rise to prominence of a believable and winning all-girl quartet in the Aussie hinterlands. Discovered and groomed by a savvy but dissolute Irish music vet on the skids, the quartet goes on to make a splash entertaining the troops in Vietnam. And they bring home some of that fame and, certainly, the wisdom they learned on that faraway road.

The Weinsteins, delivering the goods, remind that their roots were in the rock scene (in Buffalo, New York). They assure that The Sapphires is wise and loving in its evocation of both the beloved sounds, an ethos of those crazy times, and the types drawn to and ascending in the often messy music scene back then.

It’s 1968, and a perfect storm of change crosses continents: a repudiation of old values and embrace of the new amidst historic assassinations and a much-maligned war. In rural Australia, three young Australian sisters—Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell)—live on a sparse farmstead, and they too long for change.

An opportunity arises when they read about a talent competition in a nearby town. As is the norm in such films (and even in real life), each group member brings a specific gift or cross to bear. Julie, the youngest, shines as the star with a great voice. There’s also the diminutive and slightly embittered Cynthia, left at the altar by her boyfriend and understandably embittered. Perhaps the most difficult is Gail, the heftiest and oldest of the group, who just might have the goods to be a terrific businesswoman.

The venue for the competition is a grubby pub. The unpromising MC for the competition is the oft-wasted layabout Dave (Chris O’Dowd, unforgettable in Bridesmaids and “Girls”). A kind-hearted but desperate soul, he’s probably also on the run from a wife. Also not encouraging is that he also leaves behind a disastrous gig as an entertainment officer on a cruise ship.

But Dave knows his stuff and clearly has a passion for soul music. (“My blood runs Negro,” he tells the women.) He has a nose for talent and even knows the concertizing biz. He also knows that the country-western sounds the girls serve up won’t cut it. Dave sells them on a soul sound and they’re off.

An audition to entertain American troops in Vietnam brings these unlikely people together. As happens in these films, one key piece is missing and that is by way of the sisters’ more privileged and fair-skinned but equally talented cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who has scurried up the social ladder far away to become a respectable, middle-class resident of Melbourne. She, of course, initially resists but is brought on board.

The girls are recruited as the haphazardly named “Sapphires” when Kay gets inspiration from Cynthia’s ring and are off to ’Nam, but not before the sisters’ mother resists sending the young Julie. But off the four go, with Dave as music director and manager. Their act is a huge hit with the troops. They confront battle, fall in love, and ultimately triumph.

Enriched by archival footage of the war and the era, The Sapphires is sometimes predictable but always holds interest. The location shooting in Vietnam is but one sign of its eagerness for authenticity in spite of a plot from an oft-sourced playbook. And the music rules—whether from the oldies bin or the very talented Sapphires.