Thursday, April 4, 2013

'The Sapphires' has some real sparkle

Why complain about a movie that makes you tap your toes and puts a smile on your face?
When it comes to movies as engaging as The Sapphires, resistance seems pointless. This feel-good, crowd-pleaser from Australia features exuberant performances, infectious helpings of R&B and enough social awareness to keep it from turning into total fluff.

Director Wayne Blair tells the story of three Aboriginal sisters and a cousin who hone their girl-group skills in Vietnam. The women are selected to perform for war-weary GIs, under the guidance of their shambling white manager, a funny and charming Chris O'Dowd, familiar from Bridesmaids.

Perhaps realizing that his movie is going to survive on energy, as well as on the winning personalities of his cast, Blair keeps the story simple, quickly defining the women's personalities.

Deborah Mailman plays the woman who takes charge of any situation; Miranda Tapsell portrays the boy-crazed sister; Jessica Mauboy plays the group's determined lead singer, and Shari Stebbens appears as Kay, a cousin who was taken from her village in the outback to become a member of Australia's Stolen Generation.

As a result of an outrageous (and now discarded) government policy, light-skinned Aboriginal children were seized by the government and given to white families, a cruel policy that was supposed to foster integration into the larger society.

O'Dowd's Dave Lovelace proves an appealing -- if initially skeptical -- manager. Dave helps shift the group -- which began life as the Cummeraganja Songbirds -- from country western music to R&B. He encourages them to produce polished covers of such songs as Marvin Gaye's Heard It Through the Grapevine and the Staple Singers I'll Take You There.

By the time, the Sapphires start performing, they no longer sound like amateurs. Blair and his cohorts must have realized that it would be a grave mistake not to make the music slick and effective. Even in its Vietnam scenes, which strive for a bit of battle-scarred realism, the music never loses its toe-tapping drive.

The screenplay gives each of these young women a bit of background, but it's Mailman's Gail who dominates. Gail's no-nonsense demeanor is supported by her frankness and determination. She's formidable, but not without vulnerabilities.

The Sapphires is the kind of movie about which there's not a whole lot to say, other than, "See it and enjoy." And to borrow a line from the Staple Singers, if you like this kind of music -- 70s R&B -- The Sapphires definitely will take you back.

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