The simplest way to sell Wayne Blair‘s film debut The Sapphires is to say it is like the point where Dreamgirls and Cool Runnings meet, only with a more explicit socio-cultural message, and played out against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. And all in all it’s a largely undemanding, entertaining affair.

The title refers to an all-Aboriginal vocal group – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) – who leave the discriminant community their families live on the edge of and travel to Vietnam to entertain the American troops, under the guidance of their self-styled “Soul Man” manager (played by the excellent Chris O’Dowd in a role that bears resemblance to John Candy‘s in Cool Runnings). Along the way The Sapphires explores similar issues to Dreamgirls: the group are initially torn by personal frictions and haunted by underlying racial tensions both within their own group and in the wider world, and have their heads turned by the new opportunities of fame.

The parallel drawn between the Aboriginal rights movement and the American Civil Rights War is certainly pertinent, but it is handled a little clumsily, with footage of Cassius Clay denouncing the Vietnam War, as well as American street protests cut in to encourage the audience not to miss the message. In all honesty, the historical reference points included in the narrative would probably have been enough, and to some degree it feels a little like over-egging the pudding when the storyline dedicated to Gail and fair-skinned cousin Kay offers a more subtle allegory on its own.

Despite the political messages and the civil rights and racism undercurrent, The Sapphires isn’t a particularly challenging film, offering a more sanitized commentary on the Aboriginal situation in Australia which is somewhat robbed of its impact when the girls commute over to Vietnam. At that point, the film becomes decidedly un-Australian, with Hollywood-like intentions (including an impressive, but alien-feeling battle scene) and a distinctly Americanised feel, perhaps chiefly because of the film’s preoccupation with soul music.

The film will no doubt attract the same kind of criticism that the stage version did as a result – the under-playing of the Australian political context, and as a result the apparent undervaluation of the important Civil Rights question of the period (Aborigines were only granted full civil rights in 1967) – but that would be a disservice to the film. The pre-credits prologue does its best to set the scene for Aborigines in Australia in the 60s, but it is actually laudable that Blair doesn’t ever really resort to forcing a message down our throats, focusing instead on his band of charming characters. It is a protest movie that prefers story to message.

It isn’t exactly a musical, though there are performance numbers throughout, and the odd impromptu warble outside of staged environments and the production on those numbers is clean and appropriate, though necessarily without the slick over-production of those seen in Dreamgirls. Excellent sound design, and a perfectly clear track makes sure we get the most out of the harmonious sequences. The performances themselves are also impressive, though there are a few clear over-dubbing problems, especially when Gail is singing alone that are a little distracting.

In terms of acting, Chris O’Dowd stands out as the best of the bunch, effusing charisma and offering genuine laughs as the group’s Irish manager, unceremoniously stealing scenes from his female co-stars throughout and again hinting at the promise he will bring to Hollywood once he has more projects under his belt. However, that humour comes at a small cost, and his relationship with Gail, the group’s spiritual leader is undermined somewhat by limit on how many scenes they spend developing their chemistry into something believably beyond friendship.

Gail, played by Deborah Mailman, is a strong presence throughout, offering heart and fire when necessary, and handling the emotional demands of her role extremely well. Her on-screen sisters, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell, are also good, even if Tapsell has a tendency to mug a little at the start, and Shari Sebbens copes with the specific responsibilities of being a fair-skinned Aborigine and part of the Stolen Generation very well. Her friction with Mailman gives the film its strongest motivated message, as Gail wrestles with her guilt that she couldn’t prevent a young Kay from being stolen by the government (a genuinely harrowing practice from the period) and the two have great chemistry.

All in all the film is probably one of the most commercial concerns included in this year’s festival schedule (it appears out of competition), and it is certainly the most harmless, eschewing provocation in favour of a genuine entertainment factor, and preferring to tell its worthy story in terms of its characters and their personal relationships. And thanks to the tight, technically impressive cinematography from Samson and Delilah‘s Warwick Thornton, those relationships play out on a beautiful, vibrant canvas.

It will be well worth any wider cinematic release it finds (it’s currently only slated for an August Australian release) offering a less insistent take on a Dreamgirls-like story, and backed up by some fine performances from its cast.

The Upside: Chris O’Dowd offers a hilarious and hugely charming performance; the soul-biased soundtrack is great.

The Downside: Some of the over-dubbing is obvious to the point of distraction, and the success of O’Dowd’s humorous turn comes at a cost to his chemistry with Mailman’s Gail.


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