September 11, 2012



With The Silver-Linings Playbook and now Wayne Blair’s THE SAPPHIRES, Harvey Weinstein may have the feel-good part of the coming awards season locked down.  This slight but charming true story (or at least “inspired by” one) about an Australian singing group is like the happytime version of Dreamgirls.

The story is set in 1968 Australia, a time when, as opening title cards tell us, aborigines had only recently started to be treated as human beings under the law (prior to that, they’d been categorized under “flora and fauna”), and were still confined to what were in essence reservations.  But although The Sapphires are a singing group of four aborigine girls, the script by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (the latter is the son of one of the real Sapphires) isn’t really about civil rights–in fact, the bulk of it doesn’t even take place in Australia itself.  Nor is it about the betrayals and scandals of the music business, a la the recent Sparkle.  Instead, it’s the old-fashioned tale of a rag-tag group that gets together to sing, has some interpersonal battles, but overall does just fine.

In the movie, the group is made up of 3 sisters and the cousin who, as a young girl, grew up with them:  Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Kay (Shari Sebbens).  The central conflict among them is caused by the fact that Kay, who was light-skinned, had been taken away from the family by the authorities–which was perfectly legal at the time–in order to be taught “white ways” and raised as if she were white.  The other girls, although they know she didn’t ask to be taken, resent what they consider to be her feeling of superiority to them.  But by the time the movie is over, she’s come back to live with the family, and all is forgiven on every side.

That’s the way The Sapphires goes; it’s not a movie to see for scorching social commentary.   The group actually faces little in the way of struggle once Irish piano player Dave (Chris O’Dowd) hears the 3 sisters sing at a local talent show, and talks them into hiring him as their manager.  No sooner has he gotten them organized and given them a week of rehearsals, adding Kay to the gruop along the way, than they’ve gotten a gig playing for the troops in Vietnam, where they have ever-increasing success.  The movie isn’t particularly clear about what fame, if any, they had on a national level in Australia after that (the implication seems to be that when they returned from Vietnam, they settled down to marriage and non-music careers), or how unusual it was in the late 60s for a black group to be singing soul in that country.

Instead, there are contrived mini-crises to keep the story going.  Gail is the hottest head of the group, and Dave has to talk her out of her belief that she should be lead singer; the two of them butt heads so much that movie logic demands they become a couple, and they do.  It’s briefly shocking when there’s the implication that one of the girls has been taking drugs, since there wasn’t any indication before or after that they’d had any effect on her.  Eventually, this being Vietnam, someone gets injured, although not seriously.

The Sapphires isn’t much as social commentary, but it’s great fun as a semi-musical, with the group belting out a dozen or more classic soul songs.  All the actresses are charmers, and O’Dowd is as lovable here as he was in Bridesmaids (this movie isn’t the place for the kind of weirdness he brings to Girls).  The movie is brisk, and although its low budget shows in the less-than-spectacular Vietnam sequences, the movie’s cost doesn’t affect its heart, which is endlessly warm and (mostly) uncloyingly sentimental.  Sapphires is the kind of bright nothing that leaves you with a helpless grin.




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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."