Allow me to introduce you to the first feel-great movie of 2013. I’m willing to bet most of you have never heard of The Sapphires, the Australian musical comedy sensation that was a huge hit abroad last year, but if this isn’t the most joyful time you’ve had at the movies in quite some time, I’ll be damned. Not every movie has to be an acclaimed potential Oscar-winner to be considered worthy of a look, and while The Sapphires’ thin script and banal direction are hardly memorable, the film makes up for its mistakes with a high-spirited vibe that’s utterly infectious. Sometimes all you need is a great story and some winning performances to make a worthwhile movie and, fortunately, The Sapphires has both, plus the added bonus of some sensational soul music. In a year that has seen more crap than usual, this Australian light-hearted Dreamgirls is some kind of a gift; I swear I must’ve been smiling for all of the film’s 103-minute runtime.
Based off of Tony Briggs’ 2004 play of the same, The Sapphires tells the true story of three Aboriginal sisters who follow their singing dreams by forming a traveling soul group that plays for troops during Vietnam. Naturally, complications arise on the group’s climb to mini-stardom, many of which come from self-imposed manager David Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who shakes up the group up by making young Julie (Jessica Mauboy) lead vocalist over her sisters, the man-hungry Kay (Shari Shebbens) and the confrontational eldest, Gail (Deborah Mailmen). Even more drama comes with the addition of the sisters’ cousin, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), a fair-skinned Aboriginal who was taken from the family reservation as a young girl by the government and put into adoption and raised “white”. The film takes place throughout the 1960s and the comparisons between Aboriginal discrimination in Australia and the civil rights movement in America are rather effective despite being forced a bit too hard at times. Unfortunately, the screenplay never turns the movie into the social stirring commentary it hints at, but focusing more on the relationship between the members of the group still makes for one heartfelt winner of a movie.
Above all else, the performances shine brightest; Sebbens is the perfect comic relief, adding a subtle loneliness to Kay’s humorously neurotic need for love that prevents the character from being a total archetype, and Mailmen adds the emotional core as the strong-willed and slightly hot-headed Gail. Some may find Mailmen a bit too opinionated to stand, but the fear she displays as she takes her younger family members out into the battlefields of Vietnam exposes a maternal figure that wants nothing but the best for her family. O’Dowd, the breakout male of Bridesmaids and Girls, drops the improvisational wit we’ve come to expect from him but keeps the charming clumsiness that makes him so damn enjoyable to watch. Lovelace, the boozy, well-meaning manager of the group, is the perfect character for O’Dowd’s blend of dorkiness and sensitivity, and the man never forgets to wear Lovelace’s generosity on his sleeves at all times. Even when Lovelace makes poor decisions, O’Dowd’s performance keeps him likeable and human, an inviting change from all the scummy manager’s we’ve seen in previous musical biopics. As lead singer and youngest sister Julie, Jessica Mauboy is the film’s jaw-dropping breakout; wait till you hear this girl sing – my god, she’s sensational! When I found out after the screening that Mauboy is an accomplished Australian pop star – she was the runner-up on the fourth season of Australian Idol and has released platinum selling albums in the country – I was hardly surprised. The confidence that builds in Mauboy’s voice from performance to performance is assuring and powerful. Mauboy is a star, there’s no denying that.
Unfortunately, the film’s plot gets a bit thin in spots. Tapsell’s Cynthia gets drowned out with the worst material of the bunch, including a rushed love interest and the Aboriginal social commentary that builds to nothing more than an overdramatic flashback reveal. What’s even worse is the romance between Lovelace and Gail, though that has all to do with the speedy development of the pairing and not O’Dowd and Mailmen’s humble chemistry (they share a scene on a river that’s oddly reminiscent of Moonrise Kingdom – two lost souls coming together through the awkwardness of attraction; and yes, there’s clumsy dancing). And yet, none of these complaints ever amount to a problem, especially when the musical numbers are irresistibly groovy; take the group’s audition, for instance, where an at-first shaky cover of The Jackson 5’s “Who’s Loving You” quickly becomes a ballad confirming The Sapphire’s musical prowess, or one of their many great war performances, from a toe-tapping rendition of “Land of a Thousand Dances” to a spunky, big-band cover of Linda Lyndell’s “What A Man”, which I’ve had on repeat for the past day since I first heard Mauboy dig her pipes into this soulful classic.
The Sapphires won’t make any big splashes at the box office, nor will it garner enough critical praise to make it to the Oscar stage in 2014, but who cares when it can make your heart happier than it’s been in probably quite some time. When people tell me they hate films I absolutely adore – The Master, Zero Dark Thirty – I normally understand where they’re coming from since some films are just a matter of particular styles and genres; if someone were to tell me they didn’t like The Sapphires, however, I’d actually be astounded. When performances are this warm and music this outstanding, not even a thin script can outweigh the feel-greatness of The Sapphires. See it!
Review by Zack Sharf