This adaptation of Tony Briggs’ play of the same name might at first appear to adhere stringently to the musical biopic formula, but Wayne Blair’s shrewdly directed – if occasionally over-reaching – film provides more emotional heft than would be reasonably expected, in a work ultimately driven by the strong performances and entertaining musical renditions.
Taking place during 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, The Sapphires revolves around four indigenous Australian singers who are by chance “discovered” by a hapless talent scout, Dave (Chris O’Dowd). As they prepare for their first big gig – entertaining the troops in Vietnam – they must contend with not only personal dramas of identity and family, but the dark spectre that the war has pitted against their desire to sing.
While The Sapphires is full of formula, right down to the make-up of the band itself – there’s the sensible one, the silly one, the young one, and the white one – it’s kept grounded by the ever-reliable O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Bridesmaids), an able palliative to the film’s occasional excesses, riding its goofy wave for all that it is worth. The first time we meet Dave, he’s sleeping in his car, waking up to a killer hangover, which immediately tells us two things; he’s a slob, and he’s an alcoholic.
Through and through, this film is very Australian – for insults such as “goat-face” and “mongrel” are almost ubiquitous – but the story’s novel origin also suffuses it with a sharper edge than one might expect on the surface, with stinging humour keeping the fairly routine narrative clipping along. Furthermore, it has a firmer finger on the pulse of its time period than is to be expected of a deceptively light, seemingly effervescent film of this kind; the contentious racial division of the late 1960s is made gravelly apparent throughout.
Still, it’s an easy sit, focusing more on the music than the drama, belting out of a number of other group’s favoured hits with a toe-tapping quality that’s dripping enough with talent to entertain even those not especially fond of the genre or style itself. Sure, it’s topped with many of the clichés that define this sort of film too often – the absurd, spontaneous song numbers, enjoyable though they are, definitely stick out like sore thumbs – but there’s an honesty to the central dynamic that is rare in an inspirational film of this type. Dowd’s frankness, cutting the women down to size, just as they do him, makes things incisive enough not to feel resolutely generic, while still harmless enough that it rarely gets bogged down in “real issues”.
That said, the shift to Saigon later on – as The Sapphires entertain the troops during the Vietnam war – is not without its issues, namely the tacky juxtaposition of dead bodies with a jovial, booming soundtrack. However, the lush, sweeping shots of Vietnam make it easy to forgive this, shooting even the unexpectedly violent action scenes later on with panache, even if they do create a tonal chasm that the film scarcely escapes from.
Though it’s largely about the power of music to provide hope, there’s also some unexpected if slightly clumsy substance here, depicting the damaging power of war, and briefly exploring Australia’s dark past. It’s a well-made crowd-pleaser that weathers formula with the infectious appeal of its tunes; an enjoyably broad romp that stays light on its feet, and O’Dowd’s madman riffing keeps it bounding along.
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