TIFF 2012 Review: THE SAPPHIRES Sings and Dances Its Way Through War and Racial Tension
The Sapphires tells the true story of an all-Aborigine girl group -- known in some quarters as Australia's answer to The Supremes -- who toured Vietnam to entertain troops during the war under the management of a washed-out, Irish would-be musician, Dave Lovelace. So... we've got several members of a historically oppressed race of people going to visit one of the most controversial, brutal wars in American history. Seems about time for some explosive, hard-hitting examinations of morality, inhumanity and systemic injustice, right??
Well, not so much. Director Wayne Blair (working with a script co-written by Tony Briggs, who also wrote the play upon which the film is based), is far more interested in crafting a benevolent crowd-pleaser, and thus the film follows the inspiring, rags-to-riches musical biopic formula more or less to the T, except with more exotic and sometimes tumultuous locations. In fact discussing the plot in any detail beyond the log line almost seems superfluous. You have, for the most part, seen this story before.
And yet, if you accept the film on its own terms, there are some real pleasures to be found in The Sapphires. Chris O'Dowd is especially fun as Lovelace, and there's an edgy spontaneity to his performance that ends up producing not only some big laughs, but also some unexpected emotional resonance. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, especially Deborah Mailman, who is saddled with most of the heavy emotional lifting as the oldest and only responsible girl of the group. Her face and her mannerisms suggest far more about the gravity of the transpiring events than the film ever dares to. The scenes of the girls performing Soul classics are a lot of fun too, especially the early ones, in which the girls' awkward dance moves and wandering eyes allow us to reflect on what a surreal, exceptional situation their tour really is.
At the same time, the film is so concerned with rounding off most of the jagged edges that it often seems to completely sidestep potential drama. Potential conflicts are set up and just sort of brushed aside. Heated arguments often seem to fizzle out and never return, as do many of the characters' personal problems. One narrative turning point feels like a perfect time to emphasize the relentless fear of violence that constantly co-exists with the girls' giddy excitement, but Blair wraps the situation up quickly with a cross fade.
And yes, the film is equally superficial with its treatment of the Vietnam War, race relations, and the turbulent time period in general. Certainly, there are moments of racial tension, but besides an interesting conflict concerning the sisters' light-skinned Aborigine cousin who joins the group late, it's all strictly TV-movie level treatment. While its clear Blair didn't want to make the film too disagreeable or depressing for anyone, the surface-level depiction of these subjects mutes the payoff for the protagonists, and the film never feels quite as empowering as it should.
But The Sapphires is so agreeable, well-intentioned and sometimes fun, that it's difficult to harbor any real animosity towards the film or the time you spent with it. And sure, its arguable that the film could have become a tonal mess had it gone deeper into its historical and social context. Still, as the film ends, we learn that all four of the women who inspired the movie moved on to become activists in one way or another for Aboriginal rights. This sort of work is certainly more common in real life than touring Vietnam as a girl group, but I still thought to myself as the credits rolled that this less-glamorous work would have made for a far more unique and inspiring movie than yet another musical biopic.
(Review originally published when the film opened theatrically in France in August 2012. The Sapphires film will screen at TIFF tonight (Sunday, September 9) and tomorrow afternoon (Monday, September 10).