The somewhat-true story of an aboriginal girl group in the 1960s
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: An Aboriginal girl group seeks stardom during the late ’60s in “The Sapphires”
There’s a crazy – yet delicious – alchemy to concocting a winning film premise. It’s like “X” meets “Y,” maybe with a touch of “Z,” but you never know what will work, what flavors with blend just right to create an appealing fusion. Too much of one element can overpower the senses; too little of that subtle ingredient and the delicate sensibilities are lost.
The premise of Australian director Wayne Blair’s period musical drama, “The Sapphires,” reads like a down under version of “Dreamgirls” with a healthy dose of humor to appease the mainstreamers out there who need something familiar and feel-goody to get them through the rough historic bits. Back in 2002, director Phillip Noyce had one of those enviable years that resulted in a twofer – “The Quiet American” and “Rabbit-Proof Fence” – for the ages, although his year-end run came and went with little fanfare. “Rabbit-Proof Fence” was the less fortunate of the two, the tougher one to forget. I recall it now, in regards to “The Sapphires,” because it focused on the plight of aboriginal girls, eager to escape their segregated world to return to their homes and families – the ones the state felt were right and proper for them.
Blair, working with writers Tony Briggs (a first-time screenwriter) and Keith Thompson (“Introducing the Dwights”), soft-pedals the harsh political commentary, but there’s enough of it still present, hanging over the proceedings, daring us to forget. It could be that the period music offers reminders. After all, watching four talented aboriginal girls (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell) ban together in 1968, despite the odds and cultural/social obstacles, to form a musical group that ends up traveling to Vietnam to entertain the troops, can’t help but draw parallels to the subtle shifts in the Motown sound away from the poppy rhythm and blues to the more agitated sound of a collective consciousness awakening. And there is the personal animosity felt from within since one of the girls is mixed race, light enough to have been removed from the others in order to pass.
Of course, this unlikely quartet finds its voice and style with able assistance from a huckster scout (Chris O’Dowd) and finds redemption, but it is not just another fairy tale about a white male savior uplifting some colored folk. This girl group matures into womanhood on their own terms and, to the extent possible, they even save that huckster’s soul, too.
“The Sapphires” shines, thanks in part to a tricky, nuanced performance from O’Dowd that lightly unearths laughs and sentiment without pandering, granting the movie a strong beat that audiences will feel and be unable to resist. O’Dowd is the recognizable performer here, but the Irishman’s a still a bit of an unknown himself. He was the sweet cop from “Bridesmaids” and Maya Rudolph’s hubby in “Friends With Kids” and he’s even had a go ‘round on the HBO series “Girls,” but it’s all been sweet and gentle and funny – and forgettable. Yet, with “The Sapphires,” he’s given a bit more of the spotlight and the chance to stretch his character-acting muscle and he proves himself an able sideman, even while working without a noted lead. He makes everyone here stronger and the movie feels like a solid, familiar hit by laying down a rock-steady groove that speaks to the Everyman in us all.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com