The Sapphires

Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based story of an Aborigine all-girl singing group that toured as entertainers in Vietnam. The Lowdown: Despite its "true story" underpinnings, the film is largely a standard show-biz story that succeeds beautifully as entertainment — enhanced by a dynamite soundtrack and winning performances.
Genre: Fact-Based Comedy Drama with Music
Director: Wayne Blair
Starring: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Rated: PG-13

Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires is quite possibly the least original movie you’ll see this summer — and one of the most enjoyable. You know those blockbusters where “stuff blows up real neat” that people encourage you to “just turn off your brain” and enjoy? Well, this is sort of the same thing for those of us who really don’t care if stuff blows up “real neat.” The Sapphires is an unassuming, quietly amusing, sweetly pleasant movie in which a 1960s Aborigine all-girl group sings “real neat.” Oh, it has its more serious side, which touches on racial issues, but the basic interest here lies in the creation of a feel-good crowd-pleaser about the title group’s rise from obscurity in an Australian backwater to brief fame entertaining troops in Vietnam. Little may happen that surprises you and certainly nothing happens that will change your view of cinema, but nearly everything — from the well-timed comedy to the nicely observed interpersonal relationships, and especially to the girls belting out those Motown songs — will delight you.

Though grounded in fact — the screenplay (based on his play) was co-written by Tony Briggs, whose mother was a member of the real group — the movie is basically a standard show-biz tale with a fresh spin offered by the setting and the characters. The girls are three sisters (Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy) who are “discovered” by low-rent, infrequently sober Irish promoter Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, best known to movie audiences for Bridesmaids and Pirate Radio) after he hears them sing a Merle Haggard song at a talent competition. Though he hates country music, he recognizes their talent — and deplores the racism that kept them from winning — so he opts to turn them into the Aboriginal Supremes. That’s pretty much it, except for a few embellishments, such as incorporating their estranged light-skinned cousin Kay (Shari Stebbins) — who had been “relocated” by the government to be raised by white folks—into the act.

It’s all pretty simple. Everything happens too easily — despite Dave’s constant clashes with Gail (Deborah Mailman), the group’s leader — and it’s extremely manipulative of the audience. However, it’s a benign — even pleasant — kind of manipulation. Some may object to the film giving short shrift to the racial aspects, not to mention painting the Vietnam War in broad strokes. But those aspects are not really the film’s purpose. It’s fun and effective. The characters and performances are endlessly appealling. Plus, The Sapphires sound terrific. Its aims may be modest, but its sheer entertainment value certainly isn’t. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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15 thoughts on “The Sapphires

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    One of a handful of Australian films I’d actively recommend to people. Glad you liked it, Ken.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’m trying to think of what Australian movies we get anymore. Sure, we see movies from P.J. Hogan and Baz Luhrmann and Stephan Elliott, but most of the ones we see — even if they’re made in Australia — aren’t set there and could be from just about anywhere. When the films are specifically Australian — Mental and A Few Best Men — they get short shrift here.

  3. Jeremy Dylan

    These would be my picks are the best Australian fare from the last decade and a bit. Do you recall any of them making it to a cinema near you?


  4. Ken Hanke

    Lantana barely made it. It was okay, but when put up against Lawrence’s Bliss

    The others I’ve never even heard of. But we did get Bran Nue Day or however it’s spelled. Nobody went to see it, though.

  5. Jeremy Dylan

    Nobody went to see it, though.

    That was Mauboy’s first film.

    The others I’ve never even heard of.

    Maybe I should send some DVDs your way then. Not sure if you’d like THE CASTLE, but I’d be pretty confident you’d enjoy THE DISH and THE MAN WHO SUED GOD to varying degrees.

  6. Jeremy Dylan

    I also want to track down this Mental film.

    Having not seen it, I can’t vouch for it, but I’m happy to send a DVD your way once it’s released.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Mental, it turns out, is available here, so it’s no problem.

  8. Jeremy Dylan

    Let me know if it’s any good when you get around to watching it.

  9. Ken Hanke

    Well, I have to get around to getting it first. I usually like P.J. Hogan’s stuff so I’m optimistic.

  10. Ken Hanke

    Catch it quick. This crashed and burned and will be gone by Fri.

  11. Jeremy Dylan

    If the next Australian films you get are grimy incest-laden meandering misery porn about mumbling heroin addicts, you’ve only got yourselves to blame!

  12. Ken Hanke

    grimy incest-laden meandering misery porn about mumbling heroin addicts

    Oh, you’ve seen that Heath Ledger picture, Candy!

  13. Jeremy Dylan

    Oh, you’ve seen that Heath Ledger picture, Candy!

    Swing a dead cat in an Australian Film Only video store and you’ll hit a movie that fits that description.

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