Based on Tony Briggs’s 2004 stage play, The Sapphires is a crowd-pleasing, feelgood comedy about four sisters who discovered their voices while entertaining troops in Vietnam.
Director Wayne Blair applies a light touch to some potentially thorny subject matter – the enduring pain of a stolen generation of Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their parents, the devastation of the war on the indigenous population – but like the siblings’ songbook, his film remains upbeat.
Twenty-three year-old singer Jessica Mauboy, a runner-up on the Australian version of The X Factor, is luminous in her big screen debut, delivering a strong performance as well as the powerhouse vocals.
Blair’s film opens in 1958 with young girls running excitedly to an Aboriginal mission, where their joyful singing is cut short by the arrival of the authorities.Several girls are taken away, to be assimilated into white families.
Ten years later, booze-sodden Irish talent scout Dave (Chris O’Dowd) discovers Gail McCrae (Deborah Mailman) and her sisters Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) singing in a pub talent contest.
The audience refuses to acknowledge their superb efforts and when Dave dares to speak up in favour of the McCraes, he’s shot down in flames by the pub landlady.
Ambitious 17-year-old Julie persuades Dave to put them forward for auditions to entertain the troops behind enemy lines.
Dave eventually agrees but stresses that he needs to make changes to the line-up, and persuades the girls to recruit their estranged cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) and rechristen the group as The Sapphires.
They go down a storm overseas and man-eater Cynthia catches the eye of soldier Robby (Tory Kittles) but dreams of stardom are tempered by the harsh reality of the horrors of war.
The Sapphires sings to a similar tune as The Commitments, albeit with sequins, swinging hips and bone-dry Antipodean humour. Battle scenes, though brief, are well orchestrated despite obvious budget limitations.
O’Dowd gleefully pickpockets many of the best lines and he shares wonderful screen chemistry with Mailman, playing the mother hen, who will do anything to protect her sisters from harm.