Anyone up for a feelgood musical comedy set in the Vietnam war? The Sapphires, directed by Wayne Blair and based on real events, makes a pretty good job of this rather challenging brief, and while it does have some awkward shifts in tone it’s always likeable and often funny, and features some unarguably great songs (unless you really don’t like 1960s soul, in which case may the good Lord have mercy on you).
The Sapphires of the title are a close harmony group made up of three aborigine sisters plus friend who we first meet in their dusty outback town performing country songs to general indifference under the rather less catchy handle The Cummaraganja Songbirds. A boozy Irish entertainments manager with a heart of gold (Chris O’Dowd, from The IT Crowd) takes them under his wing when word gets out that there’s money to be made playing for the American troops in South-East Asia, and it’s his passion for soul music that instigates their change of direction. Through hard work and raw talent they get the gig (cue the venerable rehearsal montage), but unsurprisingly the assignment carries risks that aren’t all to do with their new careers.
The first part of the film is painted in rather broad comedic strokes, with little time wasted on making the turns in the girls’ fortunes properly convincing, and many scenes played mainly for laughs. This is fine, as the sisters’ contrasting personalities are well drawn, and the potential for future conflict between them is nicely established, and there are lots of opportunities for sharp digs at the prevailing stuffy social attitudes of the period. Chris O’Dowd’s unreliable svengali character is a bit of a cliché but he gets some cracking lines and makes the most of them. I was finding myself being reminded of quite a few other films – the brilliant moonlanding comedy The Dish, the suburban civil rights clashes of The Help, some of Baz Luhrmann, and there’s even a bit of overlap with the aborigine child abduction scandal of Rabbit Proof Fence – but I think if these references were deliberate they were put in more of a shorthand to cut to the chase than as blatant acts of plagiarism. It’s all quite breezy and digestible, even past the point when the group has shipped out to ‘Nam and is having to deal with different cultures and testing environments. Eventually however the mood changes and a couple of much more weighty subplots kick in, and while you can respect the film-makers’ good intentions in not wanting to trivialise a horrible war the movie does seem to slide into melodrama in its last half-hour. There’s even an unlikely declaration of love grafted on, which frankly hasn’t been set up nearly well enough.
Where The Sapphires does redeem itself though is in its musical sections, which occur often and never miss the mark. The group’s unaccompanied harmonies are spellbinding, and when they’re backed by a full group it’s high energy all the way, complete with spangly dresses. It’s enough to make you sweep your hair into a beehive and spend some quality time pouting into a hairbrush in front of the bedroom mirror. Or the grapevine.