The surprise of The Sapphires is how unpretentious and unportentous it is, considering that its plot hinges not only on racist Australian policy but also the Vietnam war. Based loosely on a true story, The Sapphires is about four aboriginal girls (ranging in age from 15 to mid-20s) who turn themselves into a girl group and go on tour in Vietnam in 1968 entertaining the troops.
All the elements are present for a long series of lectures about tolerance, horrifying depictions of state-sanctioned cruelty, denunciations of colonialism of both the European and American varieties, and depictions of dastardly war crimes. But there’s almost none of this. Like the girls it depicts, The Sapphires just wants to entertain, and it uses its provocative subject matter as spice and thickener for what otherwise would be a bland stew of karaoke covers, sibling quarrels, and the wacky antics of a drunk mentor.
Gail (the formidable Deborah Mailman) is the oldest and toughest of the three McCrae sisters, all of whom live on a native reserve. They and their cousin Kay sang together when they were children, but then the light-skinned Kay was legally abducted by the government and sent to live as a white in Melbourne. The McCraes show up at a talent contest in a dusty nearby town, where they sing a Merle Haggard song to the scoffing and dismissal of their “blackness” by the provincial audience.
The contest is being run by Des (Chris O’Dowd), an Irishman stranded in Australia after being tossed off a cruise ship where he was the entertainment director. The sisters lose the talent show, but they gain a manager who realizes they need to sound soulful. Des is a familiar type—specifically, the type originated by Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears and essayed again by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own. He’s the drunken, lazy, hopeless cynic who saves himself by helping amateurs learn how to become pros.
But O’Dowd, a shambling hulk of a man who came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to establish himself as one of the most delightful presences on the screen today (he was Kristen Wiig’s cop boyfriend in Bridesmaids), has none of the anger and edge of Matthau and Hanks. He’s too sweet, too puppyish—but these are qualities necessary for The Sapphires, else Des’s interest in the girls would seem rakish and creepy. Even though the story is ragingly sentimental, it’s O’Dowd who makes The Sapphires lovable.
In Melbourne, the McCraes reunite with Kay, despite Gail’s lip-curling disapproval. Des teaches them to move and sing like a Motown act. They audition in front of U.S. military personnel, are approved, and take off for Saigon. There they meet boys, they squabble, and they travel into dangerous territory. But mostly, they sing.
There’s nothing all that special about the renditions of “What a Man (What a Mighty Good Man),” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and “I’ll Take You There” that we hear and see in The Sapphires, but they are put over with immense conviction by lead singer Jessica Mauboy (who plays the youngest of the sisters). The impact of these numbers is reminiscent of Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991), a knockout picture about a group of Irish kids who form a soul band in 1980s Dublin. The Commitments is a much better movie than The Sapphires, but like Parker, Sapphires director Wayne Blair really knows how to shoot a musical number—and there’s just something indelible about a well-photographed musical performance in a motion picture that gets you every time.
It’s the way the camera moves, the way the image cuts between the performers and the audience, the way the editing rhythm itself builds excitement. “Strange how potent cheap music is,” a Noël Coward character says in Private Lives, referring obliquely to the erotic effect of a popular song. The potency of cheap music in a movie comes across in a way that makes you feel like you’re dancing when you’re sitting immobile.
The Sapphires was cowritten by the son of a real-life performer who actually toured Vietnam as a backup singer for a New Zealand Maori band performing native music. That sounds rather more multicultural and ethnographically advanced than one might have expected for 1968—and also far more boring for the soldiers. But it helps explain the air of falsity that hangs over the proceedings and that even its high-energy numbers can’t quite dissipate. The Sapphires is cinematic cotton candy. It’s nothing but sweet, and has no substance. Don’t expect much and you’ll be happy you saw it—and you won’t remember you did a week later.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.