Review: The Sapphires
A scene from The Sapphires

The Sapphires (PG) 3.5 Stars
Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy
Director Wayne Blair
You'll like this if you liked: Good Morning Vietnam, The Commitments, Ray, Dreamgirls, Bran Nue Dae

When it comes to race relations and equal rights, the music industry, like sport, has always been ahead of the curve.

Pick up a biography of any great mid-century black American entertainer and you'll invariably be appalled and enraged by stories of artists thrilling white audiences, then not being able to use the same toilet or restaurant as them.

The Sapphires, in line with music biopics such as What's Love Got To Do With It? and Ray, again celebrates the barrier-breaking power of music by telling the true story of an Aboriginal sister act (plus one cousin) who make an unlikely journey from rural Victoria to Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War.

Wearing neon-coloured miniskirts and knee-high white boots and sporting beehive hairdos, the girls wow the American troops by belting out soul classics such as Land of 1000 Dances, Hold On I'm Comin' and Sugar Pie Honey Bunch - songs more familiar to the marines than the girls who grew up listening to country and western.

It's a great story featuring fabulous music - you'd need to nail my feet to the floor to stop me tapping along to The Four Tops. Its depiction of a community too often shown drowning in despair is refreshingly positive and it throws together two very different groups - black Australians and black Americans - battling prejudice and fighting for equality.

First-time director Wayne Blair certainly captures the exuberance of the original stage production of The Sapphires, eliciting warm and funny performances from the four young women, with Deborah Mailman again revealing herself to be one of the country's finest actresses.

However, Blair and writers Tony Briggs (adapting his own play) and Keith Thompson touch too lightly on the politics of the era, avoiding the very issues that would have given greater dramatic weight and emotional kick to the story without alienating the mainstream audience they're so clearly seeking.

The strongest section of The Sapphires is the first half-hour or so in which we see three sisters who grew up on a mission - Mailman's hard-as-nails Gail, Miranda Tapsell's sexpot Cynthia (or "Sin-thia") and Jessica Mauboy's big-voiced Julie - performing in a talent contest in a rural pub.

The MC, down-on-his-luck Irishman Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), can see they're the best but the brassy, loudmouthed publican (Judith Lucy, with her signature nails-on-the-blackboard voice) ignores his protestations and awards the first prize to some daggy second-rate singer.

After the show, Dave persuades the sceptical girls to let him manage them and to switch from country and western to soul music, making his point with a delightful Commitments-inspired rant about being a black man under his pasty Celtic complexion.

After bringing their light-skinned city-dwelling cousin, Kate (Shari Sebbens), back to the fold and changing their name from the Cummeraganja Songbirds to The Sapphires, the Koori quartet and their boozy but musically competent manager find themselves in Saigon performing for the American troops. There's fun, a little heartache and terrific music in the Vietnam section of The Sapphires, in which Cynthia and Kate fall for hunky black Americans while Gail and Dave engage in some screwball-style sparring.

However, the filmmakers needed to give fuller treatment to the culture clash comedy inherent in its premise.

Instead, we get a full-blown romance involving Dave and Gail, played out with great delicacy by the charming O'Dowd (of Bridesmaids fame) and the lovely and formidable Mailman but it tends to unbalance the film, undermining the real heart of the story - a life-changing encounter of these four women with the most divisive war of the century.

The Sapphires won't have trouble winning an audience because the women are a delight, O'Dowd has more crinkly charm than a pub full of Dubliners on Bloomsday and Mauboy sings up a storm, putting her stamp on some of the best songs of popular music's golden age.

But if Blair and his team had not been so afraid to grapple with the incendiary politics of the era, to go beyond allusions to the assassination of Martin Luther King and to push a little harder the Stolen Generation subplot, The Sapphires would have been an even more sparkling gem.

The West Australian

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