Is it possible for a drama that documents the rise of a music group to follow all of the standard tropes, falling victim to clichés of the genre, and still manage to charm the viewer? The answer, in the case of The Sapphires, is an unequivocal YES. Engaging début feature is directed by Australian Wayne Blair. Keith Thompson wrote the screenplay that he adapted from Tony Briggs’ play. The playwright was inspired by his own relatives, the true story of 4 Aboriginal sisters who form a girl group in 1968 Australia. A personable geek of a talent scout played by the always delightful Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) discovers them performing country-western songs in a competition. He re-fashions them into R&B singers and promotes them as “The Sapphires” to entertain American troops in Vietnam. They’re kind of like The Supremes except they sing cover songs and there’s 4 of them.
Occasionally The Sapphires succumbs to the routineness of the proceedings. The period film infuses music and comedy in an overly familiar way. We’ve seen this blueprint countless times recounting the rising popularity of a vocal group. The four women fall into set archetypes. Julie is the talented lead singer, who was actually a runner-up on Australian Idol in real life. Cynthia, a pretty vocalist with spunk is the comic relief. Kay, their estranged sister, is conflicted – torn between her English and indigenous heritage and Gail is the overprotective mama bear of the siblings. All four are solid portrayals with Deborah Mailman as tough talking Gail being the most fully formed character.
Despite the common trappings, there are definitely elements that make The Sapphires a unique take on a ordinary subject. It touches on the children of Aboriginal descent who were removed from their families by the Australian government from approximately 1909 to 1969. This underscores the girls’ childhood when they were living in a remote mission together. Kay’s extraction from their family and the subsequent trio’s evaluation in a singing competition before a bigoted judge further references this theme. Equal rights informs the underlying politics of their early lives but it’s not really the focus. The script does a nice job of juggling the various forces that threaten the success of the group. It intersperses two love stories with a lot of rousing 60s Motown hits that are beautifully sung. I thoroughly enjoyed their versions of soul classics that included “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” If these characters appear a bit timeworn, the milieu is so uplifting and joyous, I didn’t mind a bit. I cheered these girls on as if this was the first time I had ever seen someone take a chance in pursuit of a dream in showbiz. The Sapphires is a toe tapping, heart singing good time.