Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Don Battee
Written by Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson
Directed by Wayne Blair (feauture-film debut)
The best film thus far in 2013 is The Sapphires, a film that swept every major category at the Australian Film Institute Awards in its home country of Australia. The praise is well-deserved. Here is a conventional story told unconventionally, featuring the discovery (for American audiences, at least) of two undeniable future stars: One in front of the camera and one behind it.
The Sapphires is based on a true story, about a group of Aborigine girls living in poverty in Australia during the 1960s. As the opening graphics tell us, this was not only the time of the Vietnam War, but in Australia, the indigenous Aborigine people were just gaining their equality. Like in America, strong segregation and racism still existed well past the updated laws that showed both colors to be on equal footing.
A drunk, down-and-out drifter and musician named Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd, perhaps best known as Kristen Wiig's love interest from Bridesmaids) happens upon a group of girls auditioning for a local talent competition. He decides to take them under the proverbial wing, polishes them up a bit and, voila, The Sapphires are born.
They get a gig for $30/week to act as entertainment for U.S. troops serving in Vietnam and they set about to do just that.
The story and characters are not in and of themselves, polished. This has the framework of other films we've seen before, in any music-based film where we see our stars grow from nothing into something. Usually these stories follow the same tired path, where with fame, problems and in-fighting arise.
But damn it if it isn't an incredibly infectious, effective music movie. It's also down-right hilarious. Chris O'Dowd creates a fascinatingly flawed character that had to have seemed a two-dimensional caricature on the page. None of The Sapphires as characters are developed all that deeply, but their unique quirks and personality traits are well-defined and they are so likeable that we root for them right off the bat.
But on the way to fame, something interesting happens. This is a different kind of rags-to-riches tale...it's more like rags, back to rags again. The Sapphires never have known anything outside their small Aboriginal community. They don't seek fame, don't even seem to be aware that they are on the brink of it. Their mission is simple: Entertain the troops to be able to go back home and support their family.
This humble nature oozing from the group, balanced with the lightheartedness in which the story is presented, makes this a great group of people to hang out with for a few hours and its a winning experience from start to finish. The music is always center-stage and once the girls learn how to filter the songs through their souls, the melodies soar.
Speaking of the music, a soon-to-be household name here in the States is Jessica Mauboy. She is already a massive success in Australia (she won runner-up on her season of Australian Idol in 2006) and is simply electric when performing. The movie smartly focuses on her rare vocal talents. I left the theater immediately wanting to look her up on the internet and download her music. Why haven't we heard of her?
Mauboy isn't the only breakthrough talent on display. The other is first-time feature-film director Wayne Blair. Just as the group works to distract the troops from the cruel realities of their world, Blair works to distract his audience in the same way. The film doesn't shy away from the horrors of Vietnam, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, racism, bigotry...it just makes a decision to focus on the positives. This delicate balance - between the light, whimsical tone of the film and the hopeless, depressing realities of the world at that time - must not have been easy. Blair knows exactly when to bob and weave between catchy musical sequences, glimpses of despair and also when to let loose and let his actors carry a scene. All are done with the finesse of a world-renowned juggler.
In the film, O'Dowd's character rips on country music a bit, comparing it to soul music in that both deal with loss. Just like music, there is something deep and universally appealing about the themes in The Sapphires. It looks like a movie that you've seen a hundred times and yet it also seems remarkably fresh. It entertains, it distracts and it is surprisingly powerful.
The Sapphires is a gem of a film, not without flaws though its many facets seem to gloss them over. Years from now, The Sapphires will stand out, I'm guessing, not only on its own merits, but as an early film of the legendary comedian Chris O'Dowd, the film that launched the career of famous director Wayne Blair, and the film that introduced Jessica Mauboy to the masses. Consider this your heads up.
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