“The Sapphires” sparkles with sass and Motown soul. It’s a girl-group charmer set in the midst of the civil rights era, but half a world away from the strife-torn streets of the United States. The aspiring singers here are three rural aboriginal sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and their citified cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens). The sisters enter a pub talent contest in the nearest town and harmonize their country-western favorites with heartfelt energy. The bigoted locals, who view them as little better than performing animals, rig the competition so they lose.
It’s the unfairness of the verdict as much as the girls’ singing potential that catches the attention of Dave (“Bridesmaids’” Chris O’Dowd), a shambling, affable Irish-born piano player who emcees the talent quests. He’s an outsider distrusted by the locals, too. And he’s as eager to escape the Outback as the singers, since his employment hangs on his ability to make the hotel’s female owner “feel like a girl of 50 again.”
Though Dave’s career peaked as a cruise-ship entertainment director, he assures the girls he has the connections to make them Australia’s answer to the Supremes. Provided they drop the wretched redneck repertoire and start singing Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and Wilson Pickett, that is. With Dave as their manager, stage costumes, some shimmy-and-shake choreography and a pep talk, they’re ready to launch. Their first gig? Entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam War combat zones.
“The Sapphires” often feels like a soundtrack in search of a plot, but it’s loosely inspired by real events. Screenplay writer Tony Briggs’ mother was one of the real Sapphires, and the language of the script, studded with insults like “goat-face” and “mongrel,” feels authentic.
Director Wayne Blair, unapologetically aiming for mass-audience appeal, shoots through a nostalgic haze. “The Sapphires” reduces the war, rampant racism, love troubles and showbiz chicanery to minor hurdles in his irrepressibly upbeat story.
Fair-skinned Kay, who was adopted by a white couple and absorbed their prejudices, wrestles with identity issues that threaten to prevent her from emotionally integrating into the group. That obstacle evaporates as soon as she strikes up a romance with a charming black American soldier. It’s a development typical of the script’s conviction that love and music conquer all. It’s a bit harder to accept the scene in which news of Martin Luther King’s assassination reaches Vietnam. The Sapphires’ black tour director tells them that the black soldiers are feeling hurt and angry, and the Sapphires had better deliver a mighty great show to lift their spirits.
Mauboy, an ebullient graduate of “Australian Idol,” is the standout star musically, delivering warm lead vocals on beautifully performed soul classics. O’Dowd captivates in every acting scene and amplifies the feel-good factor. The man is scruffy charm incarnate. Whether he’s tying his tongue in knots trying to pronounce the name of the girls’ hometown, Cummeraganja, or teaching “the lanky-leg shuffle” to one of the girls who doesn’t believe a white boy can dance, he’s never less than adorable. His sparring relationship with Mailman’s feisty character is the movie’s non-musical highlight.
Despite patchy dramatic passages and feel-good contrivances, the film hums with a heart-on-sleeve optimism that’s difficult to resist. And its cover versions of Motown masterpieces succeed in demonstrating why the originals have stood the test of time. Focus on the music, not the drama, and you’ll leave with a grin on your face and a glow in your soul.