In 1968, four Aboriginal girls from a remote mission, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsekll), Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) are discovered by Dave (Chris O'Dowd), a talent scout with a kind heart, poor lifestyle and bad habits - but a great knowledge of soul music. He convinces them to drop country & western in favour of a soul driven repertoire and gets them an audition with the American entertainment agency. Dave sees them as Australia's answer to 'The Supremes', and the girls get their first true gig, in the middle of the war zone in Vietnam to sing for the American troops. Based on a true story.
Review by Louise Keller:
A good hearted crowd pleaser that offers undemanding entertainment, The Sapphires tells the story of four aboriginal girls who leave their remote Australian home to sing to American troops in 60s war-torn Vietnam. Originally a stage show in which director Wayne Blair was one of the stars with actress Deborah Mailman, the film's adaptation to the screen struggles to find an effortless authenticity and as a result the narrative occasionally feels clunky and segmented.
By glossing over crucial plot points such as the transformation of the girls from gauche Country singers to polished Soul performers in the mould of The Supremes, the film seems superficial, accentuated by a lack of credibility in many of the Vietnam scenes, which feel contrived. As a consequence, despite many of the assets the film delivers, I was disappointed by what should be a rich and involving experience that promised so much following its selection for Cannes 2012.
The strength of the film lies in the winning performances - especially that of Chris O'Dowd, who brings a lost puppy appeal. He gets star billing and rightly so - his performance as the down-on-his-luck Irish talent quest compere Dave, who promises to mould and shape the girls' career is every bit as good as his acclaimed role in Bridesmaids. He manages to make even the most ridiculous moment feel real - like dancing clumsily by the river with Gail (Mailman) in a scene when it is performance, not script that wins the day.
Mailman is a great asset too, with an irresistible smile and an innate ability to express her emotions. All the girls play their parts well: Jessica Mauboy as Julie the youngest and most vocally able, Miranda Tapsell as the lustful Cynthia and Shari Sebbens as the fair-skinned Kay, in denial of her half-caste gene pool.
It is not only that the transformation steps to sequins, short skirts and false eyelashes are too steep, the fact that much of the Vietnam experience entertaining the troops is discarded, somewhat weakens the narrative as the focus is centred on the girls' lust for romance. This, in part, diminishes the story's scale. There are no glimpses of the difficult conditions, the inner struggles and efforts required to be able to perform in a war zone and allow us to share the girls' anxieties and in turn make them real.
It is the lack of these fundamental things that stopped me from believing and embracing the girls' journey from obscurity in outback Australia to acclaim in Vietnam. Had there been an inkling of the emotions the girls might have felt as they sang for their enthusiastic audience in the context, the film might have delivered greater emotional resonance. I make this comment in the context of also having been to Vietnam as young professional singer to entertain US and Australian troops. For me, it was a life-changing and humbling experience.
The issue of discrimination and race is addressed, yet it never quite goes deep enough. It's as though Blair was so intent on keeping the film light and bright that he opted to overlook the potential of creating a richer, better grounded dynamic. Granted, this is an uplifting film that celebrates the singing successes and climb to fame of The Sapphires, but the highs would reverberate far sweeter had they been grounded in a more credible reality.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We all love stories of talent discovery, as evidenced by TV shows such as (most recently) Australia's Got Talent and The Voice. It's an age old formula and it always works, as the story touches on one of the most basic of our storytelling needs, the rags to riches story but with self fulfillment as the most valuable of the riches. The four indigenous girls who were The Sapphires in the 60s embody that eternal quest for self fulfillment - through natural talent that is harnessed by and for a world waiting to be entertained and amazed.
The film's theatrical origins are sometimes evident in the tone, but it's not a major flaw. For me, there is an awkwardness, a sense of inauthenticity to some of the film (eg the talent quest in the local pub early in the story, with comedienne Judith Lucy overacting), despite some wonderful moments and a couple of excellent performances.
Chris O'Dowd is hands down the film's greatest asset, a wonderful actor who conveys sincerity through all his character's weak spots as well as the strengths. His depiction of Irish Dave, who becomes the accidental talent scout and the group's manager, is so seamless created and so likeably real we instantly attach to him. That's a result of everything working in harmony for the character, from the writing to the performance to the direction.
The girls are less compelling, even though they are great when in singing action and Deborah Mailman nails it as Gail, the older, wiser, tougher and yet ultimately the most susceptible to romance.
The dramatic elements of the complex relationships with their community are all in place, but somehow fail to elicit emotional responses. We are observers but not participants in their lives, when we should be right there beside them - and partly that's because their home town looks like a designer's idea than a real place.
The screenplay touches briefly on issues of race, even more briefly on the horrors of the Vietnam war and leaves both subjects under-developed. This is not necessarily a negative for a film that's really about the story of four Aboriginal chicks getting recognition for their natural talents. The trouble is, though, that those issues are far weightier than the story's focus. Can't be helped, but it skews the film's tone towards the banal.
In a 'star is born' genre film like this, we need a big finish, but this is only partly achieved, muting the effect. (Obviously not for the audience at the film's world premiere at Cannes, where it received a standing ovation.)
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WAYNE BLAIR INTERVIEW
SAPPHIRES, THE (PG)
CAST: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Tanika Lonesborough, Nioka Brennan, Lynette Narkle, Kylie Belling, Miah Madden, Ava Jean-Miller Porter, Carlin Briggs, Judith Lucy, Rhys Muldoon
PRODUCER: Rosemary Blight, Kylie Du Fresne
DIRECTOR: Wayne Blair
SCRIPT: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Warwick Thornton
EDITOR: Dany Cooper
MUSIC: Cezary Skubiszewski
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Melinda Doring
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 9, 2012