It’s got a great beat, and you can dance to it, so I’ll give The Sapphires (at the Sundance Cinemas) four out of four stars.
This sassy and spirited Australian import — loosely based on the real-life experiences of co-scriptwriter Tony Briggs’ mom — is the closest thing to an unadulterated delight I’ve recently experienced inside a multiplex. And if that sounds like an odd thing to say about a film that deals with weighty subjects such as war, racism and women’s empowerment — well, credit director Wayne Blair, his writers, and his smashing cast.
Thanks to their shared ability to deftly balance heart and soul, song and dance, fun and frolic, and matters of live and death, The Sapphires is one seriously funny musical dramedy.
It all begins in the Outback, circa 1968, as three young Aboriginal sisters routinely compete in a talent competition at a tavern in nearby Cummeragunja. Routinely, that is, but not successfully: They are denied deserved victories and, worse, pelted with racist taunts, because they’re perceived to be the wrong color by the white locals. One afternoon, however, they’re in the right place at the right time: Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a hard-drinking but sharp-eyed Irish talent scout, just happens to be on hand to catch their act.
Despite the occasional squabble, a romantic complication or two, and a genuinely scary brush with death — the show must go on.
Dave loves their voices — but hates their song selection. Gail (Deborah Mailman), the outspoken leader of the sibling ensemble, prefers to sing American-style country-and-western tunes with sisters Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell). But Dave insists they should switch from Nashville sounds to rhythm-and-blues — from Merle Haggard to Otis Redding — to better express the triumph of the human spirit over racial prejudice and everyday adversity.
Also, he adds, singing soul music will make it easier for him to book them gigs singing for “soul brothers” at various clubs and bases in Southeast Asia.
Dave easily sweet talks the girls’ parents into letting him manage their careers — indeed, they appear more bemused than anxious while granting their blessing — and he readily agrees to add a fourth girl to the group he has named The Sapphires: Kay (Shari Sebbens), a former neighbor and close friend who, years earlier, was rounded up during a government program designed to place Aboriginal children with “proper” (i.e., Caucasian) adoptive parents.
Due to her lighter flesh tone, Kay can “pass” for white, a fact that initially causes no little stress and jealousy as she reunites with her friends to make music. She has to prove to Gail, Julie and Cynthia — and to herself — that she still has what it takes to be a true soul sister.
Deborah Mailman, an unconventionally attractive actress, makes herself positively irresistible through sheer force of will.
Fortunately for all parties involved, the girls do gel as an ensemble as the storyline proceeds from isolated Cummeragunja to wartime Saigon, and from there to various locations — some perilously close to active combat — throughout Vietnam. Despite the occasional squabble, a romantic complication or two, and a genuinely scary brush with death — the show must go on.
And trust me: You’ll be ever so happy you’re along for the ride.
The Sapphires is sensationally entertaining whenever the eponymous songbirds sing, but their soulful performances are all the more affecting because of the context in which they’re placed.
At one extreme, there is the sweetly loony sequence in which the conspicuously white Dave teaches the girls to “sound blacker” by offering his own variations on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
At another, there is a deeply moving concert hours after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, offered as a tribute to the fallen civil rights leader — and as comfort, the movie pointedly emphasizes, to African-American servicemen who have been suddenly and brutally reminded of the racial divide back home.
But wait, there’s more: The beating heart of The Sapphires is the evolving relationship between Dave and Gail, two strong-willed, self-reliant scrappers who often come off like an Irish-Aussie version of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict. Early in their Southeast Asia tour, Gail flings down the gauntlet: “It would take a special man to manage me!” Dave immediately responds: “Well, you’re looking at him!”
It’s not really a case of opposites attracting – more like two people refusing to admit they’re made for each other.
Deborah Mailman, an unconventionally attractive actress who makes herself positively irresistible through sheer force of will, and Chris O’Dowd, an endearingly droll comic actor with a gift for vivid expressions of grand passion and wry melancholy, bring out the best in each other as their characters gradually warm to each other. But their wary romance is just one of the pleasures awaiting you in The Sapphires.
Other screens, other cinema
Throughout the weekend, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will host a Turkish Film Festival, which the MFAH film department describes as an exposition “showcasing the talent and diversity that characterizes Turkey’s contemporary cinema.” And yes, rest assured: All films will be shown with English subtitles.
Over at the AMC Studio 30, there’s another Bollywood extravaganza: Chashme Baddoor, a comic tale of two close friends and their not-so-friendly attempts to separate a third buddy from the woman all of them love. Elsewhere at the same megaplex, there is Tomorrow You’re Gone, a neo-noir thriller starring Stephen Dorff, Michelle Monaghan and Willem Dafoe that, judging from early reviews, likely will be available soon at a Redbox kiosk near you.
And if you’re interested in seeing how a legendarily feisty New York mayor restored some shine to The Big Apple, there is Koch is at the Sundance Cinemas.