The studio rep described it as “Dreamgirls, only happier.” A stop at the concession stand to pick up an air-sickness bag seemed in order. Well, blow me down! The Sapphires is a feel good movie that effectively gets the job done, thanks in no small part to the enormous appeal of its star, Chris O’Dowd.
The Irish comic’s chameleon-like performances seem to defy gender and race. His cop was by far the softest, most feminine character in Bridesmaids. As Dave Lovelace, failed cruise ship director reduced to hosting talent shows in a local pub, and soon-to-be manager of the Sapphires, O’Dowd is the blackest, most soulful “gubber” in all of New South Wales.
It’s during one such karaoke contest that hard-living Dave finds redemption (and a meal ticket) in the form of an aboriginal sister act (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell). Dave knows what it takes to manufacture a singing group, and with desperate times calling for desperate measures, he agrees to act as their manager. The three siblings are later joined by Kay (Shari Sebbens), a talented vocalist whose light skin has caused her to spend years trying to distance herself from her cousins.
Australia’s answer to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas are hired by Uncle Sam and sent packing to Vietnam, where they’re assigned entertainment duty for our boys in battle. One glaring omission: wasn’t at least one Bob Hope reference in order?
Equally damnable is the film’s music researcher, who deserves a demotion to the mailroom. The opening flashback, set in 1958, is backed by CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” (1970). And the intensity of one of the film’s most powerful moments — sister Julie’s (Mauboy) solo performance of “Today I Started Loving You Again,” which earns her the spot as lead singer, is drained for those old enough to remember that in 1968, Merle Haggard was still two years away from composing the song.
Given the context, subplots involving racism, oppression, and romance are as unavoidable as performance numbers. (You’ll know exactly in what direction the love story will lead the moment Dave moves in for a whiff of the oldest sister’s hair.) It’s a pleasure to report that all of these frequently burdensome themes are interwoven with nary a trace of condescension or sermonizing. Sentiment, however, is unavoidable. Without giving too much away, let the record show that it’s been years since I breathed a sigh of relief upon learning that a stray bullet didn’t claim a character’s life.
The script was co-written by Tony Briggs, son of one of the group’s original members. The best thing to be said for first time director Wayne Blair’s familiar staging is you’d never guess that this material was adapted from a stage play.