Polished show from girls who can actually sing soul



Directed by Wayne Blair
100 mins

Here's another dose of that sweet soul music. Based on the true story of an all-Aboriginal girl-group who became a hit with the troops in the Vietnam war, Wayne Blair's The Sapphires features performances of some of the greatest songs from the Stax, Atlantic and Motown catalogues - drawing deep from a well that really should be dry by now. Yet somehow they keep it fresh enough to silence this concern.

The Sapphires plays out against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, the rise of soul music and the horrific legacy of Australia's "stolen generation". But it's also about the usual bickering between bandmates, young love and the awkward process from adolescence to adulthood.

The set-up is simple enough. Sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman ), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) capture the attention of Irishman Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), who promises to take them and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) to great places. Or at least away from the wretched pubs they sing in, so long as they stop singing that "country and western shite" and start learning soul music. There's an obvious touch of The Commitments here, yet O'Dowd gives his character enough shades and belligerence to suggest something other than merely the stock comedy Irishman.

Moreover, the girls' performances are polished enough, but also messy and playful enough not to feel like karaoke drudgery. It helps that all four principals can sing and look the part in their sequined costumes. Sometimes Blair gets so caught up in them, he seems to almost forget the surrounding conflicts. Off-stage, the performances are more variable, with only Mailman's Gail really registering as a three-dimensional character, particularly in her conflicted relationship with O'Dowd's Dave.

At times, the film feels more rushed than it needs to. There's a lot going on, and a different film could've spent its entirety focusing on half-caste Kay coming to terms with her upbringing, or featured more of the actual scenes in war-torn Vietnam.

But like much of the most popular soul music, The Sapphires wants its audience to get the message, but not without feeling it in its hips first. Despite its contrivances, this is a charming and spirited picture. Give this one a good shake - these girls deserve it.

The Timaru Herald