Wayne Blair’s musical comedy The Sapphires (2012), one of the Gala screenings at this year’s London Film Festival, tells the (apparently true) story of a group of four Australian Aboriginal girls (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) from a rural community who aspire to musical greatness. They sing together as a family and defy the racism of local townsfolk to enter a talent competition, where they manage to catch the eye of the MC, charmer and drunken soul aficionado David Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd).
Lovelace convinces the girls to change their material from country and western to his beloved soul and serves as their coach, their manager and ultimately their inspiration. After one of the girls reads an advert in the local paper, the group auditions for a job entertaining the US troops fighting in Vietnam. Blithely unaware of the dangers involved, the group set off to the war zone, confident that this will be the stepping stone to wider fame in America, and ultimately the world.
Channelling Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991), along with Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Good Morning Vietnam (1987), The Sapphires almost collapses under the weight of its own good intentions. The tone jars right from the first title card, sombrely informing us of the history of the ‘Stolen Generation’.
Alongside the Vietnam war, racism in the American army, Aboriginal land rights and the assassination of Martin Luther King (!?), Blair’s comedy can only glibly name-check these issues before resolving them in a hokey fashion. The Vietnam war is dealt with in a particularly flippant way, as the girls’ initial naivete – “We’re looking for the swimming pool” – flips to mawkishness as they weep whilst performing in a military hospital amidst the wounded.
Thankfully, the aforementioned flaws fall short of being fatal, with The Sapphires’ cast somehow managing to keep the laughs coming with a series of convincing characters portrayals. O’Dowd’s Lovelace especially appears extremely adept at rescuing a scene from its own sense of importance. His wit and the relationship that develops between him and the firebrand of the group make for the backbone of the story, whereas some of the other subplots feel far too flimsy.
With a high feel-good factor and its heart firmly in the right place, Blair’s The Sapphires could easily find its audience among those sentimental types that enjoyed Richard Curtis’ The Boat that Rocked (2009) and this year’s surprise hit The Last Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011).