“The Sapphires” is not a wannabe “Dreamgirls.” Sure, soul singing, infighting and the 1960s are involved, but that’s where the similarities end.
Instead of a predatory Svengali, the group’s manager (Chris O’Dowd, the only “name” cast member) is a drunken loser reduced to hosting pub talent contests until fate intervenes. The four women − three sisters and their cousin − have their share of personal issues, but they’re mainly fighting the outside world. They are Aboriginals, who, in 1968, are only recently considered Australian citizens (as opposed to “flora and fauna”).
The sisters grew up together, but their biracial cousin (Shari Sebbens) was abducted by the government at a young age and raised among whites (as was customary well into the 1970s). And all they want to do is sing country, but their new manager insists that soul is what the soldiers in Vietnam want to hear.
Based on the stage play written by a real-life Sapphire’s son, “The Sapphires” could have been a frothy feel-good movie, a scrappy underdog story or a serious look at the horrifying racial issues that in some ways paralleled the unrest in the United States. Instead, it’s a nice combination of all three, with a fun soundtrack that doesn’t descend into “Pirate Radio” territory and overwhelm the plot.
The banter between O’Dowd and Deborah Mailman (as protective oldest sister Gail) has a nice crackle, and the more serious moments (like when Gail confronts cousin Kay about her racial identity) resonate. As the drama reached its height − bombs going off in Vietnam, a major loss in America and conflict among the women − there were considerable sniffles in the audience, mine included. Fear not: There’s a satisfying, musical ending set off by Jessica Mauboy’s terrific voice, but it’s earned.
I rarely buy DVDs, but I can see myself purchasing “The Sapphires” and popping it in after a long day. It’s got a fun, poppy vibe with just enough weight to keep it from floating away. O’Dowd displays his trademark sweet, comic presence, and the four lead actresses combine winning charm and excellent vocals. This is what every “based on a true story” should be.