saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
The Sapphires (PG)
28th October 2012
The Sapphires is a better film than it has any right to be. Following on just six years after the equally sassy and black Dreamgirls, and 20 after the godmother of modern black sass, Tina Turner, was beaten by Ike in What's Love Got To Do With It, you'd think there would be no room left for another soul sisters finding fame story. Especially when, again, all the protagonists have a heart of gold, they're black and, yes, sassy as hell.
Despite its trappings, The Sapphires is rather refreshing. For one, said sass-sters (see what I did there?) are Australian Aborigines who would be more at home with country and western music more linked to their subjugation than the freedom giving soul. It's only when boozy pub emcee Dave (Chris O'Dowd, thankfully in his native Irish accent after a brief stint as generic American) spots the trio singing to a bunch of unappreciative white folk that the soul comes out.
Secondly, it's less of a chick flick and more of a gutsy underdog story with flashes of war romance and lashings of comedy. It's not afraid to take itself too seriously, although as it should, it pays due deference to the fantastic voices and sensational tunes.
So, as I was saying, it's 1960-odd and Dave spots sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) doing their thing and decides to become their manager, before taking them on a tour of Vietnam to entertain the troops. On the way, they hook up with their estranged cousin Kay (Shari Stebbens) who has become too white for headstrong 'momma bear' Gail's liking. The reasons for Kay's transformation and the subsequent retribution and acceptance provide much of the dramatic and emotional oomph in a way which will not sit well with Aussies, considering the current treatment of Aborigines is still an appalling political crime.
Along the way, the singers learn love, loss, music and yadda yadda yadda. That's not to say the plot is dull - the sharp, if slightly 2D characterisation by writers Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson always makes sure the film is eminently watchable, warm and witty. But make no mistake, O'Dowd is the star here and for once, the promotional posters don't lie - he's in almost every scene. As you'd expect, his delivery is comedy gold and he is given a lot to play with - particularly in one scene involving dress shopping. But he also hangs a lot of pathos on his shambling, sad-sack figure which helps drive the final scenes home.
The girls also do a very good job, although as mentioned they are playing to rather prescribed patterns - the pretty one, the white one, the young one who can REALLY sing and the protector. But Mailman holds her own in her character's burgeoning romance with Dave and certainly no one is less than great.
Director Wayne Blair usually turns his hand to TV and it's fairly obvious in this workmanlike shooting. His war scenes seem a little odd, with an unnecessary hand-held camera that may be to impart action or may simply be to cover up the rather dodgy CGI as bullets zip past the gang. But his touches on the quieter and funnier moments are much more welcome, and the twist of the knife as the girls' family back home gathers round the one TV to see the death of Martin Luther King Jr just as the band's hopes fade is tender and poignant.
At so many other times, the film deals in clichés. We have a Rocky-esque training montage, the film ending where it began but years later, and twinkly stars. For a film that seems to strive to defy expectation, it's all a little unwelcome. Also, as I have said, the emancipation of the girls doesn't sit well when you consider the bigotry, hatred and conditions of the contemporary Aboriginal people. Essentially, it's a wonderful fairytale.
That said, there is a lot to love. The film is based on the true story of Briggs' mother and aunt, who did go to 'Nam and now work with many great causes, including the advancement and representation of the indigenous people. The pair of them are real gems, but I can't quite say the same the same thing about this film. It's incredibly enjoyable and very funny, but falls down slightly towards the end.
The Sapphires was released in the UK on 7th November 2012.
Nearest tube station: Angel (Northern)