by M. Faust
What do you get if you combine The Commitments and Dreamgirls with Cool Runnings, Rabbit Proof Fence, and a soupçon of Imitation of Life? You get something guaranteed to appeal at least in part to pretty much every audience, even if it’s really not possible to keep so many plates spinning. It helps an awful lot that The Sapphires, an Australian movie adapted from a stage show that was a hit Down Under, seems wholly innocent of calculation.
In 1968, singing is a bright spot in the lives of a group of young Aboriginal girls whose people have only recently been recognized as human by the Australian government. (An opening title tells us that until 1967 they were legally classified as “flora and fauna.”) A performance at a talent show where the locals sneer at them doesn’t get them the prize they deserve, but it does get them a manager in the dissolute person of Dave Lovelace (played by Chris O’Dowd with the same woozy Irish charm that made him a highlight of Bridesmaids). He persuades them to switch from country to soul music, and before you can say “boom shaka laka” they’re on their way to a place where racism is no barrier to performing, the nearby land of Viet Nam, to perform before American troops.
The Sapphires was “inspired” by a true story, written by the son of a woman who sang in a group like this. The random gobs of verisimilitude do little more than space out the intervals between musical performances, but that’s really what the movie is all about. The four pleasingly unstereotypical women—Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell—play distinct characters, and its fun to watch them grow into a polished Motown-like show.
The American distributor of the film is The Weinstein Company, and it shows Harvey Weinstein up to his old habit of unnecessarily editing movies he acquires: It’s missing what would seem to be the dramatic climax of the film, showing how the group makes its way through an area controlled by the Viet Cong without a military escort. The plot here may be disposable, but cutting a scene like that is pretty extreme.
Watch the trailer for The Sapphires
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