With its terrific central performance and 1960s soul tunes, the musical dramedy “The Sapphires” scores undeniable irresistibility points. But they’re not enough to give the movie the emotional resonance that a story about soul singers needs as its heroines bicker, shimmer and belt out their way to Supremes-like glory.
Directed by first-timer Wayne Blair and scripted by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (adapting Briggs’ fact-inspired play), the Australian production is a Hollywood-style musical entwined with a female-discovery journey, an Aborigine element and social-justice themes.
The setting is late-1960s rural Australia, and the mood is rosy. The strains of “Soul Man” set the tone.
Grown sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are songbirds from an Aboriginal family, and at a local talent contest run by racists, they impress Dave (Chris O’Dowd), the show’s boozing, jaded Irish emcee.
When an opportunity to sing for troops in Vietnam arises, the girls make Dave their manager and reunite with estranged chanteuse cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). Under Dave’s direction, they ditch their “Tammy Wynette” act, don spangly dresses and become soul divas.
In Vietnam, musical numbers alternate with offstage dramas. The women bicker. Kay romances an American pilot. Gail clashes with Dave over everything, never mind that the two are falling in love. The war wreaks chaos on the women’s tour.
As fluff entertainment, the film fares decently. The musical numbers are fun, it has charm and O’Dowd, in one of those inspired should-have-been-supporting turns that viewers welcome as a lead performance, is wonderful. The Irish actor (he played the Milwaukee cop in “Bridesmaids”) makes a potentially stock alcoholic-loser and shaky-mentor character into a funny, believable, three-dimensional protagonist.
Yet for every nugget, something phony, sappy or wholly predictable occurs, and beneath the sparkle, substance is nil.
The story is thin. The love story contains little passion. We never believe we’re in war-torn Vietnam.
The Aboriginal element, while worthy and interesting, receives shallow treatment, particularly the superficially depicted friction between proud Gail and conflicted Kay, who grew up in a white home as a result of Australia’s racist policies of the day.
The women are defined as mere types. Gail is the “mother bear,” Julie has the big voice, Cynthia wants a man. As a result, the effect of their musical adventure on their ripening senses of self doesn’t move the audience.
The film ends with a nice touch: an introduction of the real-life women who inspired Briggs’ “Sapphires.” As with their younger incarnations depicted in the movie, we’d like to know them better.