News Column

Motown sound drives sentimental film ; The story of racial discrimination of Aborigine people is blended in well.

May 17, 2013



Every so often, a film like "The Sapphires" comes along, and I'm glad it does. This sweet charmer put a smile on my face at the start, and it just stayed there.

The movie has more soul than it does substance. It's sentimental but not sticky-sweet. The message is meaningful and from the heart, but it's played very safe. The movie might wish it were edgier, but it doesn't need to be.

"The Sapphires" is at its core a story of racial discrimination among Aborigine people who, until 1967 law changes, were not considered to be humans but rather part of the "flora and fauna" of the country.

They had no legal rights, suffered open discrimination, and their children (especially those with lighter skin) could be taken at any time and offered to white families, coming to be known as the "Stolen Generation."

But "The Sapphires" is no downer of a film. Quite the opposite, it's mostly a toe-tapping soundtrack of 1960s Motown hits interspersed with a humorous odd-coupling of four headstrong Australian songbirds and their wise-cracking Irish manager.

The result: The social message goes down smooth because of its based-on-a-true-story tale of these ladies, turned into an all-girl group (think of the Supremes), who bring soul music to the troops in 1968 Vietnam.

Chris O'Dowd, the Irish actor/comic who broke out in "Bridesmaids" and who now pops up everywhere, has such a likable personality shaped by self-deprecating comedy that he keeps the narrative moving - even when it becomes obvious that a thin script is largely held together by the Motown sound.

Playing his part as a soulful keyboardist who's short on rhythm and long on enjoying adult beverages, O'Dowd's Irishman is an Australian "cheeky bugger" whose naughtiness is a fun match for the tough-girl attitudes of the women who are the Sapphires.

These four women who began singing together as teens in their Aborigine reserve - and who now 10 years later see going to Vietnam as their shot at stardom and as a vacation from discrimination back home - are perfectly cast.

Two are cast here as they were in the joyous "Bran Nue Dae," the 2009 aboriginal musical road-movie, and Deborah Mailman is forceful as the "big sister" of the group, while the voice of Jessica Mauboy - a runner-up on "Australian Idol" who's become a pop star in her country - carries the film throughout by making classics like "Land of a Thousand Dances" and "I'll Take You There" her own.

These ladies' wide-eyed innocence at what they find in the Vietnam war zone and their romantic entanglements among soldiers, along with the music, are a consistent balance to darker material like racial attitudes, especially when the story encompasses U.S. events including assassinations amid our own civil rights issues circa 1968.

"The Sapphires" features some serious social themes, and they make it into our consciousness enough to stick. In this way, the picture reminds me of "Good Morning Vietnam," another picture with some issues on its mind, but comedy and songs in its heart, that makes me smile just thinking about it.

Michael Smith 918-581-8479

Originally published by MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer.

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