While The Sapphires are the main act, it’s Chris O’Dowd’s scuzzy Irishman who steals the show in a heartfelt yet tonally awkward film about soul music and racial identity during the chaotic ‘60s.
It seems every year one Aussie film emerges from the pack to win the hearts and minds of audiences and critics alike. This year The Sapphires is that movie, a dramatic comedy based on the true story of an Aboriginal soul group of the same name who entertained American troops during the Vietnam War.
As one can imagine there are a lot of themes to digest in The Sapphires, and make no mistake that this is a film as political as it is entertaining. Problem is its commentary on Aboriginal and White Australian relations comes off as a clunky distraction to the elements that work. Topical yes, but in the inexperienced hands of director Wayne Blair (long time actor and stage director making his feature film debut) it does not meld well with the rest of the film.
It’s patchy political sub-plots aside, there are many things to like about The Sapphires. The film stars Deborah Mailman, pop singer Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sabbens and Miranda Tapsell as the Aboriginal girl group who learn how to become soul sisters for an upcoming tour of Vietnam while dealing with their own personal insecurities.
While all four ladies espouse oodles of charm and can more than carry a tune, The Sapphires belongs firmly in the grip of Chris O’Dowd who holds court with a great central performance as Dave, a bumbling Irishman yet a soul man through and through who mentors and moulds these girls into a funky soul machine.
O’Dowd’s naturally gifted comedic chops and magnetic personality is the perfect counter to the over wrought political and social themes featured, which has every white Australian depicted as a ratbag racist, to go along with constant comparisons between the American civil rights movement and the persecution of Aboriginals as shown where the girls find an ally in American troops serving in Vietnam. (That not one mention is made of Australian soldiers during the war comes off as highly suspicious).
Yet so good are the interactions between O’Dowd and the rest of the cast that its weaknesses (no matter how potent) are forgiven, for it’s the relationships not the politics that makes the film work. Not to mention the music. That sweet soul music impeccably delivered by these four ladies with the right amount of sass and harmony. Shame other parts of the film couldn’t follow suit.