‘The Sapphires’: Soulful and funny

March 19, 2013

sapphires

The darling of the Australian Academy Awards and a hit on the festival circuit, “The Sapphires” is that pure treat: an aggressively entertaining movie about the struggle, uplift, romance and joy of music.

Based on a true story, it touches on the deep-seated racism in Australia that kept its Aboriginal population as second-class citizens well into the 1970s. But its central characters, three sisters and one of their cousins, use their talent to break out and rise above in a most unlikely way.

The McCrae sisters – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) – live in a small town in the boondocks, where they’ve been singing together since they were children. Two of them have romantic problems: Julie has a baby but no husband, while Cynthia’s fiancé stood her up at the altar.

As the story begins in 1968, they meet the seeming laggard Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who is running the weekly talent show at a local bar. Cynthia and Gail enter the contest, telling Julie she’s not old enough to get into a bar. She finds her own way to town and pushes her way on to the stage, revealing a voice that is the best of the three, as they sing a Merle Haggard tune.

Dave, a ne’er-do-well with a deep love of soul music, spots their talent, though he finds himself flummoxed by their feisty nature – particularly the dominant Gail, the oldest. He convinces them to try their hand at the music of Stax and Motown – and, practically on a dare, accompanies them (both as manager and pianist) to an audition for acts to entertain the troops in Vietnam.

To round out their sound, they draft a cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was stolen as a child as part of an Australian program that essentially kidnapped Aborigines with lighter skin and placed them in schools to learn “white” ways. Kay is living a “white” life in the suburbs of Sydney, but takes them up on their offer (because she sang with them as a child).

To everyone’s surprise, they get the gig – and find themselves on American bases in the wartorn country. There, Kay and Cynthia both find themselves besieged (in a good way) by good-looking (and black) American soldiers, even as they tour the bases.

In the process, they learn things about themselves, even as they hone their act. They gain confidence and style singing the music of Otis Redding, the Four Tops, the Staple Singers and others. Even the brusque, bossy Gail falls – for the unlikely Dave.

As movies go, this one won’t stop the world. While it never pushes the envelope, it will definitely brighten your day. Director Wayne Blair keeps things simple, preferring to let the story and the characters carry the movie, along with an upliftingly soulful soundtrack.

Make no mistake: These women can sing. And they can act. They know where the laughs are, which makes them formidable foils for the scene-stealing O’Dowd. O’Dowd, in turn, finds more levels (and laughs) than you’d expect to this hustler with a heart.

Yet the film also makes its points about the racism that tarnishes Australia’s history (in the same way slavery tarnishes the USA’s). That’s not news in Australia, but it may come as a surprise to American audiences, whose knowledge of the racial policies in Australia is probably slim.

But this is a film that can be serious when it wants, without ever taking itself too seriously. “The Sapphires” will leave you singing and perhaps dancing to its upbeat, soul-enhancing tale.

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