The Sapphires

PG, 100mins

Directed by Wayne Blair

A film like The Sapphires works in much the same way as a pop song. People will presume that it’s all very easy to just chuck some chintzy, bright colours and some catchy hooks around its attractive stars and the entire enterprise will sell itself. Sadly, people’s idea of pop music is largely just as misinformed as it is on popcorn movies. There’s a delicate routine of tightropes and juggling that goes in to perfecting a crowd-pleasing, mainstream-baiting slice of multiplex fare. The debut feature of director Wayne Blair and Tony Briggs, adapting his own stage show alongside Keith Thompson, will likely be criticised by many for being as attractively empty as a Katy Perry song, but the skill and sly moments of real panache help turn The Sapphires into a shining example of the type of film this country really ought to be making more of.

In 1968, a year after Aborigines were given more rights by referendum, four young Koori girls embarked on a tour of Vietnam. Performing red hot interpretations of the soul and R&B songs that American troops wanted to hear, these women – known as The Sapphires nee The Cummeraganja Songbirds – encounter a world that they could never could have imagined growing up on a mission in Victoria under the constant threat of government interference and very overt racism (cue comedian Judith Lucy as a surprising cameo). Taken under the wing of an opportunistic Irish “manager” – a film-lifting performance from Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) – the film follows a very familiar path. Interspersed with sparkly musical numbers of classic hits and a healthy dose of romantic melodrama, The Sapphires is sure to win over crowds of audiences who prefer their films on the lighter side of life.

It’s the sincerity with which the filmmakers have treated the material that makes it a winner, along with the lively cast and a glamourous look. The story is indeed a cliché factory that we’ve all seen before – Dreamgirls is an instant memory, but there are many others – but the cast are game and it never descends into camp. Blair’s film broaches the topics of the stolen generation, American civil rights and the parallels between African American and Aboriginal people, as well as the relationship between fair and dark-skinned Aborigines, but it sadly skims over them for the aforementioned songs and kisses. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but the rather breezy 100-minute runtime could have easily withstood a bit of extra weight had they decided to navigate any of these elements further. Other elements are washed over or gladly ignored – why does one sister insist on O’Dowd helping them when he appears to have no discernable talent whatsoever? – but one’s ability to not necessary suspend belief, but casually shrug their shoulders at it, will make their enjoyment of the film much easier.

As the tempestuous leader of the group, Deborah Mailman (Mabo; surely a national treasure by now) hits yet another home run. Perfectly working the comedy and the drama, she becomes the backbone of not only The Sapphires, but also The Sapphires. With a sparring partner in O’Dowd, the two form what is surely one of the most unlikely romantic pairings of the year, and yet it all works. Pop star Jessica Mauboy has clearly grown her acting chops since Bran Nue Dae in 2009, and Miranda Tapsell impresses as the theatrical good time sister. I was really taken, however, by newcomer Shari Sebbens as the fair-skinned half-caste cousin, Kay, whose personal history greatly impacts the lives of her cousins. She radiates warmth as she struggles to come to terms with her heritage and her family. Can’t wait to see more from her.

If the screenplay by Briggs and Thompson is perhaps a bit too scrappy at times, favouring montages and broad strokes of history, then the production is top notch. Lensed by noted filmmaker Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah), his keen eye favours bold colours that fill the entire screen. Whether that’s a field of yellow flowers, the back of a ute full of freshly picked oranges, or the hot pink staging of a Vietnam nightclub as the girls shimmy on stage in the purple, blue, red and orange dresses of costume designer Tess Schofield.

Being a musical, of course, special attention must be given to the soundtrack. With the only original material – a Mauboy sung tune called “Gotcha” – relegated to the closing credits, it’s a jukebox musical all the way. Mauboy, who takes lead on the majority of the tracks, is an obviously talented lass whose voice soars over tunes like “What a Man” and “I’ll Take You There” with modern acrobatic inflections that you won’t find on Diana Ross recordings. Still, quality singers they all are with Mailman, the only hold-over from the stage show, sounding not at all like I would have expected. Even O’Dowd gets to chime in every now and again on stuff like “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch”, proving that he’s a handsome man of many talents.

If The Sapphires isn’t quite the masterpiece that its globetrotting festival success may suggest, that isn’t enough to make it any less of an entertaining piece of nostalgia-based, toe-tapping fun. If Australia wants big box office hits then there’s little reason to not go out and support this one.

The Sapphires is released nationally on August 9 through Hopscotch Films.