Inspired by writer Tony Briggs’ mother and her days touring in a girl group, Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012) begins in rural Australia, 1968. A deeply ingrained racism is made apparent when two members of Aboriginal girl group, The Cummeraganja Songbirds, can’t hail a taxi to a talent contest, before losing to a far inferior white performer. Their potential is only recognised by Irish MC Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), whose appreciation of soul music and obvious admiration for the oldest member, ‘Mama Bear’ Gail (Deborah Mailman) leaves him mentoring the four-piece ahead of an audition to serenade the US troops in Vietnam.
Feathers are immediately ruffled when he replaces Gail with little sister Julie (Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy) as lead singer, but the arrangement sparkles and The Sapphires are formed. Lovelace takes it upon himself to encourage the girls to go back to their indigenous roots, to abandon the lament of country and western music and embrace their ethnicity. He serves up a rather nice analogy after a flat rendition of I Heard it Through the Grapevine: “Country and western music is about loss. Soul music is about loss. But the difference is, in country and western music, they’ve lost, they’ve given up and they’re just at home whining about it. In soul music, they’re struggling to get it back and they haven’t given up.”
The main strength of The Sapphires is clearly in its feel-good nature. The sisters (and cousin) squabble, they rant, they actually punch each other at one point, but their solidarity is in their singing, and a love of music is what reunites them. With the exception of the soundtrack, it’s fair to say that things would be rather bland without O’Dowd, whose recent comedic performances have gone a long way to proving his transition from television to silver screen has been highly successful. Whenever the atmosphere dims to make way for the more serious points hit on including racial prejudice and Australia’s ‘stolen generation’ O’Dowd resets the mood with a cutting one liner and surprisingly good rhythm.
Despite some frequently heated banter, Lovelace’s relationship with the girls is sweet and the development of the girl group is really entertaining. Highlights include a cover of Linda Lyndell’s What a Man and a brief rendition of The Staple Sisters’ I’ll Take You There – one could safely assume a lot of Shazaming took place during screenings. However, bum notes are still hit with the unconvincing romance between O’Dowd and Gail. It would be fair to say that the pair share plenty of verbal sparks, but little to no physical chemistry.
The overall plot itself often feels overly sloppy, utilising a tried-and-tested formula perhaps more suited to a Broadway/West End musical play than an independent film – which, incidentally, is how the project originated. Overall, however, despite the odd faltering plotline and occasional romantic miss, Blair’s The Sapphires is a sufficiently enjoyable exercise in soul survival, led rather unconventionally by O’Dowd’s pasty, drunken Lovelace.