Spoiler alert: The Sapphires is likable as hell but so formulaic you’ll swear you’ve already seen it. The heart-tugging, toe-tapping saga of an Aboriginal girl group overcoming obstacles and becoming a soul sensation for a brief moment in the ’60s really has only one surprise, and I found it enormously refreshing:
They work hard, triumph over terrible racism and become a first rate R&B act, but they do not rise to fame. They fizzle. They fade into obscurity. That happens in real life all the time but it never happens in the movies. I suppose that’s not actually a spoiler since, before this film, you’ve probably never heard of them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Based on a 2004 play by Tony Briggs, son of one of the real Sapphires, the picture is the feature debut from Aborigine director Wayne Blair. Adapted for the screen by Briggs and Keith Thompson, it’s by the numbers in every sense of the word. It tracks a tried and true sort of triumph while featuring renditions of classic soul songs so bursting with energy and joy you won’t care the originality needle’s leaning on empty.
It’d be a classic rags to riches story if anybody got rich but I don’t believe $30-a-week qualifies even when adjusted for inflation. That’s the jackpot the U.S. military offered for a musical act willing to brave the dangers of Viet Nam to entertain the troops. In the film’s opening moments, fate brings together an itinerant Irish promoter (Chris O’Dowd) and a group of young singers competing in a talent contest in a corner of the outback.
He knows they have what it takes to go places. They want to be anyplace else. The movie reminds us Australia was an even more racist place than the States at the time. Light-skinned black children could be stolen from their homes and raised as whites. Which might seem like a horrible thing to do to a person until you realize that, until 1967, native Australians weren’t even classified as people by the government in the first place. They were considered “flora or fauna.” Next to an environment like that, Nam might look downright inviting.
You don’t need me to tell you what happens. You’ve seen Dreamgirls, Sparkle, The Commitments and The Five Heartbeats. OK, maybe not The Five Heartbeats. With the help of O’Dowd’s Dave Lovelace, the four (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens) get a Masters in Motown and a makeover that includes go-go boots, shimmery minidresses and, of course, bouffants.
There isn’t a plot point we don’t see coming and character development is nonexistent but I doubt a tour of duty has ever proven such film fun. All four singers are enormously charismatic and each deserves a medal for reminding us why tunes like “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “I’ll Take You There” are timeless.
The picture’s other chief charm is O’Dowd. The Bridesmaids and This Is 40 actor may give the impression of being an overnight success but has, in fact, been bouncing around TV and films for ten years, just recently hitting his comic stride. I contend that, with two or three deceptively inventive performances, he’s made himself an indispensable component of contemporary comedy.
Normally, I’d razz a film “based on a true story” for fudging the facts as blatantly as The Sapphires does, but not this time. In real life there was no Dave Lovelace. No heavy drinking Irish hustler; no R&B svengali. If the creators of the movie were going to work Chris O’Dowd into it, they were going to have to lie to us and the truth is I’m glad they did. The picture never would have hit the comic high notes it does otherwise. Like I said: The dude is indispensable.