Wayne Blair makes a satisfying feature debut in this Vietnam-set tale of an Aborigine singing group entertaining American troops.
Some diversions invite comparison more readily than others. Take “The Sapphires,” the most chipper film ever set in Vietnam.
Already many have taken it, and liked it. If you enjoyed “Strictly Ballroom” or “The Commitments,” which is to say if you fell for the slightly pushy charms of those show-business fables (one fantasy Australian, the other Irish, though directed by an Englishman), then chances are you’ll go for this true-ish story of an Aborigine singing group entertaining the American troops, enemy fire be damned, in 1968 — like Bob Hope and Raquel Welch, New South Wales division.
“The Sapphires” began as a stage play in Melbourne in 2004, written by Tony Briggs, set one year after the national referendum that expanded, at long last, the rights of the indigenous Australian population. The laws changed, but the racist attitudes toward Aborigines were, and are, a lot slower to adapt. This is the background of the story, based on the lives of Briggs’ mother and aunt. One Aussie theater reviewer correctly predicted nearly a decade ago that “The Sapphires” would make a pretty fair movie. And here we are.
Director Wayne Blair makes his feature film debut with “The Sapphires,” and with the casting of “Bridesmaids” costar Chris O’Dowd as the Koori girl-group’s manager, the movie’s focus has tilted away somewhat from the ladies toward the amiably opportunistic Irishman running their newfound lives. The McCrae sisters are Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Gail (Deborah Mailman, from the stage version’s original cast). Natural singers, they encounter Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd) at a local bar, where he runs the weekly talent show.
Once these three hit the stage, Dave hears the sound of potential money and one audition later, they’re off for Vietnam, along with the fourth member of the Sapphires. She is Kay (Shari Sebbens), the sisters’ lighter-skinned sibling who was kidnapped as a child to be raised and educated with so-called “white ways.”
On tour behind enemy lines there are affairs with soldiers to juggle, while Dave gradually realizes he’s in love with Gail, the mother-hen of the group. His declaration of love in “The Sapphires” is interrupted by mortar fire, which sends the film briefly into more dire territory. Then we’re back to the Motown, Stax and Atlantic label hits. (Initially the Sapphires favor country-and-western, but Dave is a soul man through and through.)
The soldiers we meet on the fly in “The Sapphires” are an astonishingly clean-cut and drug-free group, in keeping with the film’s desire to placate rather than provoke. Now and then a character may note the oppression of blacks in the U.S. versus Australia, but only now and then.
The performers improve it, or save it, depending on your viewpoint. O’Dowd’s uniquely wry charisma offsets the sincerity and sparkle of the leading ladies, all entertaining. The script is corny and clichéd and goes the way you expect it to go. But those things never stopped any movie from working with an audience.
The real star is cinematographer Warwick Thornton, whose vibrant color palette sets the desired storybook mood. Thornton wrote and directed his own earlier Australian film, “Samson and Delilah,” whose toughness has little in common with this good-timey jukebox musical. Let’s make a deal: If you see “The Sapphires,” seek out “Samson and Delilah” too sometime.