War-torn Vietnam, circa 1968, sounds like an offbeat location for a sassy, uplifting musical comedy. But then again, almost everything about Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires would qualify as “offbeat,” which is part of the crowd-pleaser’s numerous charms.
Based on true events (which also inspired a stage production back in 2004), The Sapphires starts in rural Australia where aboriginal sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens), and Cynthia McCrae (Miranda Tapsell) pursue their collective dream of a career in music. The sisters sing – and when they harmonize, the movie sings. There’s something so primal about voices in tune locking into a pitch-perfect harmony. The simple act of four voices snapping together in unison can lift one’s soul, and Sapphires achieves that level of cinematic cacophony on multiple occasions.
The story shifts into second gear, however, when the McCrae sisters meet Dave Lovelace, a drunk of a bottom-feeding manager who knows just enough about the promotion business to cling to the ladies’ coattails as their “star” begins to soar toward the stratosphere.
Lovelace is played by Bridesmaids love interest Chris O’Dowd, an Irish lass with buckets of natural charisma and pinpoint comedic timing who makes an incredibly wise decision to model his flawed protagonist after two Tom Hanks characters: Jimmy Dugan from A League of Their Own; and Mr. White from That Thing You Do! If it sounds like high praise, comparing O’Dowd in Sapphires to a two-time Oscar winner like Hanks, it’s intentional. The young comedian’s that good on screen here, and he’s often the glue that holds the picture together when contrived plotting by screenwriters Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs labor to move the plot along.
The McCrae sisters, adopting the stage name The Sapphires, embark on an overseas tour to entertain troops in Vietnam, and it’s here that the movie falters ever so slightly because it tries to increase artificial tensions. Blair ramps up the war-driven chaos. Gail argues with Kay over racial indifferences important to Australian natives, or Julie’s isolated as the true star of the group. The seeds of a relationship are planted between Lovelace and one of the sisters, leading to an unavoidable fallout. These conflicts could have been lifted out of any Motown biopic, but it’s hardly the fault of The Sapphires that musical acts often follow a similar arc of rapid ascensions followed by the inevitable fall.
The Sapphires fires on all cylinders when it drops all pretense and allows its talented cast to simply belt out a series of pure, unfiltered slices of ear candy. The film offers up a jukebox filled with recognizable hits. It calls to mind similar movies such as The Commitments or Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and falls in step with those like-minded musical dramas every time Blair allows his moving parts to harmonize.