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"THE SAPPHIRES"
(2013) (Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Three Aboriginal sisters and their cousin escape the racism of 1960s Australia and head to Vietnam as a singing group to entertain the troops.
PLOT:
It's 1968 and Gail (DEBORAH MAILMAN), Cynthia (MIRANDA TAPSELL) and Julie (JESSICA MAUBOY) are sisters who want something more than life on the Aboriginal reserve where they live with their parents, other family members and friends. They're quite good singers and enjoy performing country and western songs, but must contend with racism from the outside white population toward them. That is, except for Dave (CHRIS O'DOWD), a bored musical accompanist for local singing contests.

When he hears the sisters, he's blown away, unlike the racist white audience. But he thinks they should transition from country and western songs to soul, and that they'd be perfect with him serving as their manager if they'd agree to travel to Vietnam to entertain the troops.

After adding the girls' cousin, Kay (SHARI SEBBENS) back into the group -- she was removed from the family as a child and sent to be raised by a white family due to her light skin color -- Dave gets down to business honing their skills. But he must also contend with long-standing bickering between Gail and Kay; believing that Julie should replace Gail as the lead singer; and trying to convince the girls' family to let him take them to Vietnam.

Once there, they are treated like stars, while Kay finds a would-be suitor in American soldier Robby (TORY KITTLES) and some flirting develops between Dave and Gail. But his drinking and the inherent dangers of performing in Vietnam during a war threaten to undermine the group's budding success.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Despite enjoying all sorts of music and having a quite successful gig of singing in the shower, I would likely fail miserably in the music biz. I can't really carry a note vocally (at least in tune) and my half-hearted attempts at learning to play various instruments pretty much amounted to plucking out the signature notes of "Smoke on the Water" on a guitar or the "communicate to the aliens" notes of "Close Encounters" on a keyboard.

Accordingly, I'm often amazed and sometimes mesmerized by those who are musically gifted, be that on those competition shows on TV, in concert, or even just some impromptu and more intimate performance. Being a creative person, I get the attraction such people have to their innate and/or practiced talents, while I also understand the appeal of movies about them as individuals as well as the "let's put a band together" flicks.

Following in the footsteps of "The Commitments," "That Thing You Do!" "The Blues Brothers" and a slew of others of their ilk, we now have "The Sapphires." It's the seemingly far-fetched sounding tale of a trio of Australian Aboriginal sisters (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell) and their cousin (Shari Sebbens) who escapism the racism of their country and travel to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain the troops under the guidance of their Irish manager (Chris O'Dowd) who has them performing soul hits.

The interesting thing is that it's loosely based on fact. In 2004 a play of the same name debuted in Melbourne, and its playwright, Tony Briggs, based the story on that of his mother and sister who did indeed tour Vietnam as singers in the 1960s. Now Briggs has teamed with Keith Thompson to pen the screenplay from which director Wayne Blair adapts the story for the big screen. While it has a few moments of stretching believability, for the most part it's an entertaining if familiar 100-some minutes of music and drama.

For many viewers with long enough memories, it will also likely come off as something of a combination of "The Commitments" and "Good Morning, Vietnam." For the former, the tale of an Irishman putting together a band to sing soul songs and having to deal with personality conflicts, egos and such bears more than a striking resemblance to Alan Parker's 1991 masterpiece. And having foreigners entertaining the troops in Vietnam while also witnessing the horrors of that conflict could remind many of that Robin Williams film.

It also touches upon a facet of racism of which I was unaware, namely the practice of the Australian government of that era having the right to remove fair-skinned Aboriginal kids from their families so that they could be raised by white families as one of their own. That's introduced here by an opening title card describing the practice, and that serves as a catalyst for some of the strife that occurs between the oldest sister and her cousin who was indeed transplanted as a child to a white family.

Thankfully, Blair doesn't let that drag down the film's energy or put too much of a damper on the otherwise entertaining flick. Much of that latter quality stems from some smart dialogue with which the young women work, as well as a terrific supporting performance from O'Dowd. Coming off as a grown-up but world-weary version of Jimmy Rabbitte (the manager in "The Commitments") who's heard enough bad music in his lifetime and hates being the emcee and accompanying musician for some local singing contests, the actor (probably best known as the Officer Nathan Rhodes in "Bridesmaids") is a delight to watch.

Thankfully, he doesn't overshadow the main characters who stand out in their own right. Mailman (the only performer to reprise her role from the original play) is quite good as the oldest sister who feels responsible for her siblings and their budding success, as well as guilt over a past incident regarding the aforementioned racism. The chemistry between all of them feels true, and their performances on stage are also good.

Other than treading down a familiar and well-worn path about putting a band together and some related credibility issues (mainly the girls' family so easily accepting an Irishman in Australia taking the teens to Vietnam), this is a decent offering. It might not possess the exuberant innocent fun of "That Thing You Do!" or the overall brilliance of "The Commitments" (including its far better selection of soul music) but "The Sapphires" shines enough in its own right to rate as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed February 19, 2013 / Posted March 29, 2013


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