Talking Movies

November 6, 2012

The Sapphires

Chris O’Dowd stars as the manager of 1960s girl-group The Sapphires in this charming Australian drama based on a true story of pioneering Aboriginal women.

Three sisters in a remote township dream of singing, but racism stymies their attempts to get discovered until drunken pianist/MC Dave (O’Dowd) stands up for them at a talent contest and quickly becomes their manager. Determined to win them the chance to entertain American troops in Vietnam he works on changing their sound and stage presence, battling all the while with Gail (Deborah Mailman), the momma bear sister with an inflated opinion of her mediocre singing talents and a sharp mouth. Her sibling rivalry with the flirtatious Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell); who is recovering from being jilted at the altar; and the younger Julie (Jessica Mauboy); the most talented singer who is driven to succeed by her need to support her son; threatens to derail the group. But that’s as nothing compared to the tension created by Dave’s insistence on adding Kay (Shari Sebbens), their ‘passing’ cousin who lives in Melbourne…

It’s hard to imagine this film working as well as it does without Chris O’Dowd’s particular shambling charm as the drunken Irish soul man with a penchant for insulting people, an abiding hatred of country music, and an ever present hip flask. Dave’s fractious relationship with Gail sees them both deliver zinging put-downs of the other, and there is a fantastic ‘emotional’ speech in which he tries to compliment her but gets sidetracked by his own barbs. The memorable quips are accompanied by a joyous soundtrack of 1960s soul music, and the low budget doesn’t stop director Wayne Blair from throwing in one very memorable show-off shot hammering home the unpredictable chaos of guerrilla warfare. But underscoring the comedy of the script by Tony Briggs and (not that) Keith Thompson is a patient reveal of a family trauma…

This should be approached as a drama, but with a lot of very funny lines. It has serious emotional heft as a major theme is vicious racism against the Aboriginal population at both a casual and official level, and it also features a startling depiction of the emotional devastation caused by Martin Luther King’s assassination that rivals a similar sequence in 2007’s terrific Don Cheadle movie Talk To Me. The Sapphires wonderfully balances presenting Vietnam as a place of racial equality, and therefore supreme opportunity for these girls, but also an extremely hazardous warzone where as Dave says ‘every American soldier here is stoned off his head’ because of fear. It’s semi-miraculous that the film successfully combines these strands with a riff on Dreamgirls as the relationships within the group buckle under the strain of constant performing and doomed romances.

The Sapphires traverses familiar territory but does so with such winning performances and good humour that it is most rewarding viewing.

4/5

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