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The Sapphires

Director: Wayne Blair
Cast: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell

(US DVD: 6 Aug 2013)

Who knows how to define star quality? During the studio system, the movies created icons that quite simply made everyone fall in love with them. Even if most of them were archetypes of classical beauty, several were more unorthodox looking, yet the camera couldn’t help but be in love with them and they helped redefine what audiences thought of as beautiful. In similar fashion, the music industry helped propel the careers of people who didn’t have the looks, but definitely had the talent and before the domination of the pop machine in the last two decades became unavoidable, previous times gave us artists whose talent was the one thing that determined their success.


These two elements are the predominant themes of The Sapphires, a delightful musical comedy that deals with social issues in a way that makes them easier for us to digest. The film essentially takes the plot of Dreamgirls and transposes it to 1968 Australia, where a group of very talented aboriginal female singers suddenly find the possibility of success despite being in a country where they are discriminated against for the color of their skin.


When the film begins, we see how the four women have been performing since they were children and as they reach young adulthood, they dream of nothing more than to make a name for themselves in show business. But the world where they want to perform sets them aside because they’re not white. When they perform in a small festival, they catch the eye of Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) an alcoholic Irish talent scout, who sees how unjust these women are being treated and promises that he will help them find work. They approach him with a possibility that sounds both terrifying and exhilarating: entertaining American troops stationed in Vietnam.


The Sapphires, as they become known, get the job and make their way to a land where for once they are only judged by their talent, but as they begin to find themselves under the spotlight, their relationships begin to unravel, in the most typical dramatic fashion. Gail (Deborah Mailman) the self-appointed mother figure, begins having trouble as she loses control of the other girls, she also falls in love with Dave, even as she harbors a dark secret. Kay (Shari Sebbens) deals with self-hatred as she comes to believe no one will ever love her because of her multi-ethnic heritage. Is she white? Is she black? Who is she allowed to be attracted to, based on her race?


The other two members, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), are less featured in the plot and their problems are less “significant” in a larger scope. While Kay and Gail are given problems that mean more in social, racial and cultural spheres, the other two are given an assortment of “girl troubles” that keep them busy but never turn them into fully engaging characters. It’s safe to say, that even if they all give wonderful performances, the strongest actor in the film is Mailman, partly because she gets scenes with the heaviest emotional content.


It’s a shame truly that the screenwriters (Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs) never felt the need to make the movie decide if it wanted to be a social drama or an effective musical comedy. The film has wonderful musical moments, but other than an explosive performance or two and a key scene in which Dave explains to them the difference between country music and soul, The Sapphires remains a rather forgettable affair. It’s feel-good yes, but up to what point do you want to be entertained and take nothing out of it when the movie ends?


The Sapphires was inspired by the real life story of screenwriter Briggs’ mother, Laurel Robinson, who along with her sister traveled to Vietnam to entertain the troops, the rest is complete fiction and you can tell that the movie intended to be as politically correct as possible. Perhaps Briggs wanted to pay tribute to her mother, without getting too intimate and sharing her personal history with the world, or perhaps she decided to borrow a working formula to ensure success?


The Sapphires is presented by Anchor Bay releases in a stunning 1080p transfer. The movie doesn’t feature particularly gorgeous scenes, but the transfer improves on the humid Vietnam landscapes. Sound is a key feature in this film and the soundtrack includes a wonderful surround mix. Bonus features include your typical making-of featurette, a short feature on how they picked the band’s music and a fascinating, albeit too short documentary featuring the women who inspired the film. Their stories and larger than life personas make us think a non fiction movie about them might’ve been more memorable.

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Jose Solís wanted to be a spy since he was a child, which is why by day he works as a content editor and by night he writes and dreams of film. Although he doesn’t travel the world fighting villains, his mission is to trek the planet from screen to screen. He has been writing about film since 2003 and regularly contributes to The Film Experience and PopMatters. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.


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