You don't have to be a fan of Motown and the girl groups of the '60s to feel the soul of "The Sapphires," a heartfelt yet often-times comical look at a group of aboriginal soul singers who fight through prejudice and past troubles as they battle through the sorts of quibbles groups face once a bit of fame comes knocking on their door.
Directed by Australian filmmaker Wayne Blair, "The Sapphires" follows sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and their first cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who are taken under the wing R&B-loving Irish musician (Chris O'Dowd) as they leave Australia in 1968 to perform for the U.S. troops in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Most of the humor in "The Sapphires" comes via the natural charm of O'Dowd, the loveable Irish actor whose breakthrough role came opposite Kristen Wiig in the 2011 comedy blockbuster "Bridesmaids."
The minute O'Dowd appears on the screen he's a hoot, and every line he utters seems to carry some special meaning. The great thing is, he's not there specifically for comic relief, and you come to believe fast that he's somebody who truly cares about what happens with his new discovery.
See the trailer for "The Sapphires" below.
While the depth of O'Dowd's performance isn't a complete surprise, the true revelations in "The Sapphires" are the four female leads, who are relative unknowns to U.S. audiences. Mailman gets the most chance to shine as the "Mama Bear" of the Sapphires, the oldest sister who grumpily watches over her younger siblings and first cousin.
As the story moves on eventually discover a rift between Mailman's and Sebben's characters, and it's not rooted of the standard jealousies that eventually rear their ugly heads in most musical groups. Instead, it's over the separation of the cousin and the sisters in their childhood and the decidedly different lives the live after a traumatic event.
That's the part where Blair seamlessly weaves in a subplot about Australia's "Stolen Generations," a tragic part of the country's history where the mixed-race children of aboriginals and white Australians were seized by the government and the church missions -- a practice that wasn't abolished until the early 1970s.
While Blair isn't afraid to tackle issues of racism and wedge in a bit of commentary about the Vietnam War, the film is far from a full-out drama. One of the main missions here is the music, bringing to light the fascinating true story of a woman (the mother of co-screenwriter Tony Briggs), who in 1968 traveled to Vietnam with Briggs' aunt to bring soul music to the troops.
The group's vocals are all top-rate, which shouldn't come as a big surprise since the "Sapphires" lead singer, Mauboy, was a previous winner of "Australian Idol." As they move out of the country and western music realm (an on-going joke in the movie) into full '60s girl group mode, they effortlessly show, for the lack of a better word, that they're a Supreme talent.
"The Sapphires," rated PG-13, 3 1/2 stars out of four.
What other local critics are saying ...
Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press in his 3 star review calls "The Sapphires" a "gem with a few flaws." He says it's "predictable, simplistic and, in its attempts to comment on the Vietnam War, overly ambitious," yet adds, "there is way more to like."
In his 3 star Star Tribune review, Colin Covert says the film "sparkles with sass and Motown soul," but "often feels like a soundtrack in search of a plot."
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.