Light Treatment

A compelling story about race, music and Australia is watered down

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Sapphires
Opens July 11th, RPL
3 out of 5

Unlike most Australians I know, the majority of dramas from Down Under are serious, unabashedly grim affairs. Just take a look at some of the titles to reach the international market recently: Animal Kingdom, The Proposition, Wolf Creek — all of them darker than the bottom of a kangaroo’s pouch.

With companions like this, The Sapphires is bound to stand out. A good-natured biopic starring the affable Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) as an Aussie Svengali, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of four Aboriginal women who find a way out of extreme poverty by singing their hearts out during the early ’60s. At the time, racial discrimination was in full swing and the civil rights movement in the U.S. was admired but not yet emulated.

In the beginning, The Sapphires specialize in country-western music, a nonsensical choice quickly corrected by their manager, a hustler prone to embezzlement but with a good heart. By transforming their act into a Motown spectacle, the girls land a contract to entertain American troops in Vietnam. One caveat: Very little protection would be granted.

The similarities between The Sapphires and Dreamgirls have less to do with plagiarism and more with the standard evolution of a vocal group packed with strong personalities. The girls’ Aboriginal background is often referred to, but treated matter-of-factly — a refreshing change of pace considering how patronizing films about Indigenous people’s issues can be.

The inner conflicts, however, are not that interesting: Their boy-crazy ways are guaranteed to backfire, the leader of the group is expected to resent the most talented member, and the oily manager must have a secret or two destined to poison his relationship with the band. Even Saigon has been sanitized for your viewing pleasure.

The conventional plotting wastes both the enormous potential of the story (which is based on real events), and a superb cast. Don’t get me wrong, The Sapphires is a perfectly pleasant film with great music to boot. Just don’t expect a life-altering experience. Your mom might really like it.

2013-07-11

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