THE SAPPHIRES (Dir. Wayne Blair, 2012)
The Irish comic actor Chris O’Dowd, best known to British audiences for his role as Roy on the TV show The IT Crowd, and by American audiences for his part as the flirty cop in BRIDESMAIDS, gets his chance to carry a film as the lead in THE SAPPRIRES, a late ‘60s era band biopic about an Australian girl group, that at times comes off like a spirited mixture of THAT THING YOU DO and GOOD MORNING VIETNAM.
Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, and Shari Sebbens play the young indigenous women whose soulful singing of country songs encourages O’Dowd to manage them for a tour to entertain the troops in Vietnam.
The scruffy lush O’Dowd (playing a Melbournian), convinces the spirited but mouthy group to drop what he calls the “country shite,” and take up soul music by way of a montage in which he coaches them into being a more polished and presentable act, with choreography, matching dresses and a new name: the Sapphires.
As O’Dowd and his new singing sensations travel the rough terrain of Vietnam, the film can feel pretty montage heavy, but the string of short scenes flows amusingly enough. There have been many many movies that have covered the same 1968 ground, i.e. the escalation of the Vietnam war, but that’s mainly backdrop here as the focus is on the relationships of these women.
Mauboy may be the lead singer, but Mailman, who O’Dowd says is “mama bear,” to the “little baby cubs” of the others, has the most affecting presence, especially in a monologue detailing her family’s strife fraught back story. Tapsell brings amusing feistiness to her underwritten role, and as the light-skinned cousin who feels she has the most to prove, Sebbens gets to have a likable bit of romance on the side with Tory Kittles.
Based on a popular Australian play by Tony Briggs, which was loosely based on true events his mother and aunts experienced, and co-scripted here by Briggs and Keith Thompson, THE SAPPRIRES is a colorful charmer with a top notch soundtrack.
Songs by Creedence, Sam & Dave, and are in abundance, but the film is at its most toe-tappingly tuneful when Mauboy takes the mike and belts out superb renditions of Motown and Stax standards, as well as the winner “Gotcha,” a new original (written by Mauboy with Louis Schrool and Ilan Kidron).
Sure, there are the predictable “based on a true story” trappings like overused archival footage, and the obligatory photos of the real folks with tidy sum-ups of what became of them, and when Googling the original band you’ll find that O’Dowd’s character is completely ficticious, and only two of the women from the original group went to Vietnam as backup singers for other artists, but I was so won over by the film’s soulful warmth that I could put those things aside.
Starting Sunday night, May the 12th, O’Dowd will be starring in Christopher Guest’s new HBO series Family Tree which looks to be right in line with Guest’s classic ensemble improv comedies WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND. After seeing his ace chops on ample display in THE SAPPHIRES, it’s now a show I’m looking forward to even more.