Spoiler alert: The Sapphires is likable as hell but so formulaic you’ll swear you’ve already seen it. The heart-tugging, toe-tapping saga of an Aboriginal girl group overcoming obstacles and becoming a soul sensation for a brief moment in the ’60s really has only one surprise, and I found it enormously refreshing.
Namely (and here’s the spoiler), the Sapphires work hard, triumph over terrible racism and become a first-rate R&B act, but they do not rise to fame. They fizzle. They fade into obscurity. That happens in real life all the time, but it never happens in the movies. Perhaps that’s not actually a spoiler, since, before this film, you’d probably never heard of the Sapphires — who really existed.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Based on a 2004 play by Tony Briggs, son of one of the real Sapphires, the picture is the feature debut from Aborigine director Wayne Blair. Adapted for the screen by Briggs and Keith Thompson, it’s by-the-numbers in every sense of the word. It tracks a tried-and-true sort of triumph while featuring renditions of classic soul songs so bursting with energy and joy you won’t care that the originality meter is leaning on empty.
It’d be a classic rags-to-riches story if anybody got rich — but I don’t believe $30 a week qualifies, even when adjusted for inflation. That’s the jackpot the U.S. military offered for a musical act willing to brave the dangers of Vietnam to entertain the troops. In the film’s opening moments, fate brings together an itinerant Irish promoter (Chris O’Dowd) and a group of young singers competing in a talent contest in a corner of the outback.
He knows they have what it takes to go places. They want to be any place else. The movie reminds us that Australia was even more racist than the States at the time. Light-skinned black children could be stolen from their homes and raised as whites. Which might seem like a horrible thing to do to a person, until you realize that, until 1967, native Australians weren’t even classified as people by the government. They were considered “flora or fauna.” Next to an environment like that, ’Nam might look downright inviting.
You don’t need me to tell you what happens. You’ve seen Dreamgirls, Sparkle, The Commitments and The Five Heartbeats. (OK, maybe not The Five Heartbeats.) With the help of O’Dowd’s Dave Lovelace, the four young women (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens) get a master’s in Motown and a makeover that includes go-go boots, shimmery mini-dresses and, of course, bouffants.
There isn’t a plot point we don’t see coming, and character development is nonexistent, but I doubt another tour of duty has ever proved to be such film fun. All four singers are enormously charismatic, and each deserves a medal for reminding us why tunes such as “Who’s Lovin’ You,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “I’ll Take You There” are timeless.
The picture’s other chief charm is O’Dowd. The Bridesmaids and This Is 40 actor may give the impression of being an overnight success, but he has, in fact, been bouncing around TV and films for 10 years, just recently hitting his comic stride. I contend that, with two or three deceptively inventive performances, he’s made himself an indispensable component of contemporary comedy.
Normally, I’d razz a film “based on a true story” for fudging the facts as blatantly as The Sapphires does, but not this time. In real life, there was no Dave Lovelace. No heavy-drinking Irish hustler, no R&B Svengali. To work O’Dowd into it, the creators of the movie had to lie to us, and the truth is, I’m glad they did. The picture never would have hit the comic high notes it does otherwise. Like I said: The dude is indispensable.