The Sapphires: Bringing Australian R&B to the Troops

The Sapphires

Opens Fri. April 5 at Seven Gables. Rated PG-13. 99 minutes.

There’s no other way to describe this Australian movie: Dreamgirls meets Rabbit-Proof Fence. During the late ‘60s in the outback, on a sunny, cheerful farm, three Aboriginal sisters sing in exquisite harmony. In addition to folksongs voiced in their own language, they have a fondness for American country music—because we’re all reading from the same grand, globalist sheet music of humanity, aren’t we? The Sapphires is that kind of movie, a classic example of Harvey Weinstein’s internationalist-frosted cupcake sentimentality. The sweetness won’t kill you, but cynics will get a saccharine headache from the film—which is based, yes, on a true story (and was previously a stage musical).

The girls also have a lark-voiced cousin, who cavorts with them in childhood flashbacks. But as our story begins, Cynthia, Gail, and Julie are suffering indignities of local talent shows, where their talents are scorned by racist judges. Shambling onto the scene with a hangover and untucked shirttails is roving musician/talent scout Dave (Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd, who’s moved from English TV acclaim to the Apatow gang in films including Bridesmaids and This Is 40). While The Sapphires is emphatically a women’s picture, with sisterly spats, tears, hugs, and reconciliations, O’Dowd’s role is to bring some dudeishness to the proceedings; and he plays this good-natured oaf with easy authority, bringing predictable charm to a predictable story. The four actresses—their singing mostly dubbed—are equally pleasing: Deborah Mailman as Gail, Jessica Mauboy as Julie, Miranda Tapsell as Cynthia, and Shari Sebbens as cousin Kay, whose light complexion resulted in her being removed by the government and forced into adoption with a white family in the city. This actual historical phenomenon of the “Stolen Generation” lasted until 1971, but The Sapphires is not a movie to dwell on racism, injustice, or—when Dave and his now R&B-belting girl group entertain the troops in Vietnam—wartime violence. It’s a film about uplift, music, overcoming obstacles, and even finding love—usually damning qualities for me, but I’ll give it a pass.

Every season needs a mom matinee, something that brings an easy smile and doesn’t require a wad of tissues. The Sapphires is that kind of movie.

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