Wednesday, 8 August 2012


Hopscotch Films
Now Showing

An all-girl soul group’s rise to fame in the 1960s may sound a lot like Dreamgirls, Bill Condon’s 2006 film version of the stage musical based on The Supremes and which garnered Jennifer Hudson an Oscar, but The Sapphires is very much an Australian story.

Also adapted from a stage musical, and based loosely on actual events, Wayne Blair’s feature directorial debut may not have the polish and gloss of its Hollywood counterpart but it has just as much soul and arguably a lot more heart.

When three Aboriginal sisters from an outback community perform in a local talent contest – and clearly light years ahead of their competitors – they may not impress the white locals but they win over Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). A failed musician with a keyboard and a drinking problem, Dave recognises talent when he sees it, encouraging the trio to abandon their country and western repertoire in favour of soul music.

And the younger two of the sisters, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), know an escape from small town Australia when it drops into their lap. They encourage Dave to become their manager and chaperone them to an audition in Melbourne which, if successful, could see them performing for the U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Not so easily convinced or impressed is eldest sister, Gail (Deborah Mailman), who’s not about to surrender easily the leadership of her group to any man nor the microphone to her younger sister, who happens to be the better singer (Mauboy is no actress but the girl can sing).

Nor is Gail about to welcome back with opens arms their estranged cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who lives in Melbourne and attempts to “pass” as white; Kay is a victim of 'the stolen generation', which the film only briefly but quite affectingly touches upon.

But just as all modern day films must be trilogies, all girl groups in 1968 require four members, and before you can sing “I heard it through the grapevine”, all four young women and the Irishman are Saigon-bound. Blair’s film, lensed by fellow director Warwick Thornton (of Samson and Delilah fame), was shot partly on location in Saigon and looks impressive, even more so given the no doubt budget constraints.

And even if the film isn't as self-assured story-wise when the Sapphires land in Vietnam -- I'll admit, I spent a lot of the film in the 'cringe' position -- the musical numbers, and the performances of O'Dowd, as the comically liquored-up Pygmalion, and Mailman, whose Gail is as fiercely protective of her heart as she is her sisters, manage to keep things afloat and spirits high.

The last Aussie musical, Bran Nue Dae -- also of an indigenous nature, and also starring Mauboy -- did surprisingly well at the box office with some $7 million. The Sapphires deserves to do just as well, and not just because it's the superior film.

We seem so rarely to make 'feel good' films in Australia nowadays that when something not set in urban suburbia and riddled with crime and drugs comes along, it's as though we're children who've been let out to play (i.e. the 2011 success of Red Dog).

And The Sapphires is feel good fun, and an unashamed crowd pleaser. It may not hit all the notes perfectly but you'll be hard pressed not to tap your feet or sing-a-long.

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