By Gary Murray
Starring Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy
Written by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson
Directed by Wayne Blair
Running time 103 min
MPAA Rating PG-13
Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE
The movie musical has slowly been making a comeback in a big way. Once was once a staple of cinema from the 1930s until the 1960s, the genre faltered and almost died by the late 1970s. We did get some interesting musical films such as A Chorus Line and Little Shop of Horrors. But it wasn’t’ until Chicago that the movie musical roared back to life. Since then we have gotten Dream Girls, Mama Mia! and Les Miserables. The latest musical to his the Silver Screen is The Sapphires.
The film starts with a slate that this is based on a true story. Opening in the late 1950s, four young Aboriginal girls–Gail, Cynthia, Kay and Julie–sing at a local talent show. All the natives are charmed by the four little angelic voices singing a traditional song. But they are also aboriginal people, second class citizens in a white world.
We flash forward to 1968 and two of the sisters still sing together while the third tends her child. They still live together but there are tensions. The fourth, Kay, was so light-skinned that she was taken into mainstream (AKA white) society. They others have not seen Kay in almost a decade.
Gail and Cynthia go to a local talent show and are snubbed by all the whites. The racism in this world is prevalent and obvious. But piano-player Dave (Chris O’Dowd) sees something in the two girls who insist on singing country tunes. He tells them that they should be doing music with true soul, rhythm and blues music.
Before one can blink, he is their manager and piano player. Julie demands to be a part of the group and Dave agrees because she has the most soulful voice. They go into the city and retrieve Kay from the world she has been a part of. There is a massive amount of tension between her and the ones she left behind.
We get the montage of practicing and rehearsing. In what seems like scant moments, this group is off to Vietnam to entertain US troops. The bulk of the story is of their honing their act in this war-torn nation. They see the ravages of conflict on the bodies of young men. We also see the joy that music brings to these battle weary soldiers. The girls make friends with some of the GI and love blossoms among the bombings. The story of The Sapphires is of how these four ladies go from a strong bunch of single personalities to an entertaining show business success.
When watching The Sapphires, the question arises—just who the heck is Chris O’Dowd and why isn’t he a bigger star? They guy was in Bridesmaids but makes a heavy splash as a second-tier musician who knows true talent when he sees it. There are moments of heartbreak and true emotion as this little musical drama unfolds. This is the kind of performance that gets noticed in Hollywood.
With four basically unknown actresses in the lead roles, it becomes hard to make a singular impression, but Deborah Mailman as Gail breaks out from the pack. She is the big sister who doesn’t have the looks or talent of the other three though she does have the heart. The more she is outshined by her siblings, the more she fights to make an identity. Her big singing moment at the end of the film is a tear-jerking experience.
Director Wayne Blair makes some obvious choices in crafting this film. He never tries to make any overpowering directing statements in his film. The basic camera set-ups and simplistic story telling gives the entire look of The Sapphires a classic Hollywood feel in a world that seldom respects classic Hollywood.
There are some technical mistakes like new mikes being used in the 1960s and the girls singing “I’ll take you There” which is a 1972 hit by the Staple Singers. This is a song four years ahead of the events presented. But, these are more than just nitpicking. The joy of music is what drives The Sapphires, not the technical details. It is best just to take in the music and emotions and not worry about the details.
The Sapphires is the best film I’ve seen in 2013. It has everything one wants in a feel good movie. One of my criteria for making my ‘best of’ list is do I want to see it again? I cannot wait to see this little film again. It would make a great Broadway musical and should not be missed.