The Sapphires is the kind of project that gives “the feel good movie” a good name. It’s a little sappy and manipulative, but if you can walk out of the theater with anything less than a big dopey grin on your face then there’s probably something wrong with you. Falling somewhere between The Commitments, Dreamgirls, Rabbit Proof Fence, and Good Morning Vietnam, it’s a warmhearted humanist comedy filled with laughs, romance, and good old fashioned soul music. You could say you’ve seen it all before and you’re probably right, but when familiar elements are combined this smoothly and effectively, it’s hard to be cynical. Based on a true story (feel free to add “inspirational” to that if you feel so inclined) and featuring a charmingly hilarious performance from a talented comedian on the verge of stardom, The Sapphires has sleeper hit written all over it. This is the type of movie that everyone catches eventually on a lazy Sunday cable broadcast. The kind you stumble upon by accident and find yourself too charmed to turn off.
The film follows a trio of impoverished Aboriginal girls with a taste for musical performance named Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell). Of course, they live in the particularly racist Australia of the 1960s, which means their dreams don’t stretch much higher performing at a local pub talent show and even when they do, the racist audience barely even notices their performance. Fortunately the man tickling the keys for their only show is a burned out Irish alcoholic (Chris O’Dowd) who spots their talent and is just unemployed enough to be willing to dedicate his life to their music careers. The ambitions are fairly still fairly low. O’Dowd is convinced that a quick shift from country to soul music will make them a bankable group to tour Viet-nam entertaining the US troops. After convincing the girls’ parents and adding a lost sister Kay (Shari Sebbens, whose character was forcibly removed from the family and placed into foster care for having lighter skin. A sad dark truth in Australian history), O’Dowd dubs the group The Sapphires and trains them for their big audition in Sydney. They get the gig and tour Vietnam. There is much rejoicing, but as you can probably guess from their destination the big tour is going to feature a little tragedy along with the excitement.
Aside from the timeless music, the reason the film is so successfully can be attributed to one man and his name is Chris O’Dowd. The IT Crowd star has been slowly slipping into movies thanks to Judd Apatow, but The Sapphires gives him his finest role to date. Able to sleaze and swear up the screen while still coming off like a romantic teddy bear, it’s a role that plays to all of the actors strengths and he plays it like a breakout performance. The rest of the cast are all strong enough to keep the movie afloat, but it’s O’Dowd who gets the show off role and he’s able to milk it for all its worth. The only time the movie goes a little off the rails comes during an awkwardly conceived war sequence that tries to turn things too dark and causes O’Dowd to disappear for a chunk of screen time. Still, with this genre you’ve got to expect a dalliance into melodrama and at least the filmmakers are smart enough to work through those sequences in a swift and emotionally satisfying way. Everyone involved clearly knows the comedy and music are what make this story appealing, with the human drama and racial acceptance commentary there more to add heart to shenanigans rather than define and weigh down the movie (see any movie with a bearded Robin Williams other than The Fisher King and Good Will Hunting for an example of how to screw up that balance).
Co-writers Tony Briggs an Keith Thompson as well as first time director Wayne Blair paint their movie in big broad appealing colors. All of the girls in the group essentially have one personality trait (the momma, the boy-toy, the talent, the outcast, etc.) they milk incessantly and any humor or social commentary never stretches into territory that would offend your grandmother. It’s an unapologetically old fashioned crowd pleaser that feels like it’s from another era and that’s exactly what makes it work. There’s no sense in expecting any grand human insights or unpredictable plot twists. However, the movie uses the clichés and conventions that work and it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in the emotions, laughter, and exuberance. Attempts to weave the tragedies of Vitnam towards the end might feel a little forced, but until those small stumbles The Sapphires is exactly the movie that it should be. Sometimes a little predictability can be a good thing.