The Sapphires begins with a scene that shockingly recalls the so-called "'60s scoop" of Canadian aboriginal children, forcefully removed from their families so they could be integrated into white Canada.
This movie is set in Australia, however, where the government was no less arrogantly patriarchal in its conviction that pale-skinned aboriginal children were fair game for a widespread program of forced assimilation.
From those tragic beginnings... a girl group arises.
If that sounds like a trivialization of a tragic history, one should keep in mind the plot of The Sapphires is based on a true story and filmmaker Wayne Blair is primarily concerned with doing justice to the specifics of its inspiration as a drama, but also as an entertainment.
So after that introduction in which a young girl is snagged by officials, we are introduced to a trio of sisters attempting to assert their musical talent in an unappreciative town near their home in the Cummeragunja Reserve, circa 1968.
Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Nauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) enter a talent show at a local pub and endure racist jeers from the crowd. But musician/MC Dave (Chris O'Dowd from Bridesmaids) recognizes raw talent when he sees it and offers to take the girls to the next level, as long as they abandon their country music repertoire and perform soul music. He memorably asserts the superiority of soul, even if both forms of music are about loss.
"The difference is in country and western music, they've lost, they've given up and they are just all whining about it," Dave says. "In soul music, they're struggling to get it back."
The bossy Gail emerges as the sisters' alpha-songstress, but she goes along, and recruits their estranged long-lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) from a life of passing as white in urban Melbourne.
Under Dave's dubious supervision ("Can you do it blacker?"), the girls succeed in getting a showcase gig. The bad news: It's performing USO shows in war-torn Vietnam. In that intense, often dangerous environment, relationships become fraught with tension, especially the one between the high-handed Gail and the charming, drunken Dave. (It is a mitigating asset that Dave knows his own limitations: given a pistol for protection on a road trip from Saigon, he passes it to Gail without argument.)
And so it goes with The Sapphires, which at times seems a mash-up of showbiz movies -- Dreamgirls meets For the Boys.
It is best to take the film on its own terms as a unique piece of work unto itself, hinging on the curious harmony between O'Dowd's roguish charm and Mailman's magisterial gravitas.
It's an unlikely pairing that would have given Sonny & Cher a run for their money back in the day.
Excerpts of select reviews of The Sapphires:
When the end credits, inevitably, include photos of the real women on whom this is loosely based, they turn out to be much more attractive than the actors playing them, which must be some kind of first.
-- J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader
In the end, The Sapphires might allude to weighty issues regarding racial and gender inequality, war and class division, but it's all smoke and mirrors. The film's true concern remains overproduced musical epiphanies of the lowest order that fade from memory almost immediately
-- Glenn Heath Jr., Slant
The supposed chemistry between O'Dowd and one particular Sapphire that he's supposed to be in love with doesn't quite fizz convincingly, and some of his big emotional speeches are a little uncertain. But the film shows that
O'Dowd is a real big-screen player, and the Sapphires themselves are great value.
-- Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
You could drive an Abrams tank through the film's plot holes, but you'll likely be too busy enjoying yourself to bother.
-- Michael Posner, Globe and Mail
The Sapphires feels like a movie you've already seen, but it's nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable, like a pop song that's no less infectious when you know every word.
-- Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times
The Sapphires sparkles with sass and Motown soul.
-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Sapphires is hardly a cinematic diamond mine. But this Commitments-style mashup of music and melodrama manages to entertain without demanding too much of its audience.
-- Linda Barnard, Toronto Sun