Based on a play by Tony Briggs of the same name, and inspired by a true life story, The Sapphires is an Australian dramatic comedy set in the late 1960s about a group of aboriginal soul singers. Obviously attempting to grab the same audience as 2008’s Dreamgirls, The Sapphires opened strongly in its native Australia before bombing in France. It follows the story of a group consisting of big sister and surrogate mother of the group Gail (Deborah Mailman), feisty wannabe star Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), fair-skinned Kay (Shari Sebbens) and talented lead singer Julie (Jesica Mauboy). They are discovered by Irish MC Dave (Chris O’Dowd), who, having lost his job agrees to go with the girls to tour Vietnam and hopefully make them a huge success performing to US soldiers during the war.
Usually with genre films like The Sapphires, you know what to expect before the film even starts. They tend to follow the simple dramatic three-stage narrative with the first third setting up the characters and central conceit, the second showing them coming to terms with their decision and final act providing an obstacle that is overcome to provide a successful conclusion. The Sapphires does not disappoint in this regard. It sticks to the formula like glue and does it well, grounded as it is by the performances of Chris O’Dowd and Deborah Mailman. However it rarely steps away to investigate the variety of issues and topics it addresses.
There’s a fair-skinned aboriginal, stolen from her family and raised as a white girl who struggles for acceptance from the overbearing pseudo-parent who is hurt by what she sees as a betrayal. Then there’s the burgeoning race issues in both Australia and the United States, with passing mention to Dr. King and even has time to investigate the issues of parenthood against the chance to follow your dreams. What The Sapphires doesn’t do though, is stop long enough to truly investigate these in any depth, leaving the whole film feeling a little too nice to worry about these problems. This would be a perfectly acceptable way to treat the environments and historical context had they not attempted an ill thought out finale with an emotional bait-and-switch involving an attack on the show. This strange mixture of reality and the glitzy non-reality of the film provides a horribly jarring note.
Despite this issue, there’s still plenty to like about The Sapphires with O’Dowd bringing his unique brand of comedy throughout. He acts as the more cynical side of the audience, voicing problems with the more self-indulgent moments like the girls singing to solve an argument. The soundtrack is full of cracking 60s soul music that will have you tapping your feet throughout and whatever your thoughts on the pacing, you won’t help but have a smile on your face at the very end.