The year is 1968; the peak of the Vietnam war. Four Australian singers from an Aboriginal region are picked up by a talent scout (Chris O’Dowd) hailed as Australia’s answer to The Supremes. Shortly after, they are given their first gig – performing for the American troops.
The Sapphires will surprise anyone who, like me, thought it would just be Dreamgirls set in Australia. It carefully and deftly toes the line between having a strong narrative and becoming a musical, but I must admit there may actually have been an excess of songs on display here. Not in terms of quantity, just length. You might tell me that it’s a must to have all songs performed to their fullest, however (maybe this is me being a product of my generation) I found the songs sometimes too long and drawn out. I am an in-theatre sway-in-chair and dance-with-my-hands kind of guy, but there are limits to how long I can sustain excitement and how many times my limited moves can be repeated. The song selection, however, is fantastic; when it’s jovial everyone sways and when serious you are moved by the sheer power of the music.
The casting of The Sapphires singers themselves follows the more or less pre-established model physically, but definitely deviates in terms of vocal talent. Normally, you have the sexy one, the sassy one (i.e. the one given the one-liners) and then the not-classically-beautiful one who secretly has the best voice and who, by the end, has her moment in the spotlight. In The Sapphires, however, the best singer is not shy about mentioning that fact and imposes it on all the others, whereas the not classically beautiful one is told to her face that she has the weakest pipes of the four.
The film’s true highlight though is Chris O’Dowd. He plays a failed MC/musician who stumbles upon the then Cummeragunja Songbirds and showed them success by shepherding them away from the country western they favoured singing towards the popular soul and motown music of the time. O’Dowd is endowed (heh) with the gift of seamlessly moving between highly critical and poignant one moment to defusing and charming another. His role in shaping the group shows a passion for music combined with a Simon Cowell bite, but his role as band manager dealing with other authority figures hides a weak and indecisive character.
The Sapphires definitely tries to touch on many socio-political issues, Aboriginal-Australian relations being the main one, however, it could have done with committing more heavily to its harder subjects. It swings frequently from heart-warming comedy to social commentary; those extremes are very good but the connection in between is sometimes missing, which leaves these moments high and dry.
If you wish to get into the ring with The Sapphires, not only will you be outnumbered, but they will keep hitting you with a flurry of laughs and songs to set you up for the uppercut coming to chin every so often through the soft gloves of four sweet ladies, one drunk and an array of the USA’s finest stationed around Vietnam.