A version of this review appeared in The Age, August 9, 2012.
You can't go too far wrong with a musical comedy built on Jessica Mauboy's voice, Deborah Mailman's acting chops and Chris O'Dowd's gift for blarney. Happily, Wayne Blair's adaptation of Tony Briggs' play does not squander its feelgood promise.
Based loosely on fact, the script by Briggs and Keith Thompson centres on Australia's first Indigenous girl group – three sisters and a cousin from the Cummeragunja Mission who get their big break when they're invited to entertain American troops during the Vietnam War. The girls start out doing country and western numbers, but their would-be funky Irish manager Dave (O'Dowd), advises them to reinvent themselves as Australia's answer to the Supremes, with young Julie (Mauboy) as lead singer. This proves to be an inspired move, despite the complaints of Gail (Mailman), the protective “mama bear” of the group.
Though he continues to rely on variants of a single sheepish expression, O'Dowd has become a surprisingly useful comic actor. Here he serves as a virtual narrator, interpreting the Sapphires for the audience: during a training montage he literally hangs placards round their necks, defining the role played by each member.
As for Mailman, she's quite simply a star, and a mysterious one at that. How does she bring so much warmth, humour and authority to a character written as a bossy killjoy? Partly it's the way she lets amusement shine through exasperation: Gail watches Dave's antics with a wary, disbelieving smile, as if to say “I know what to expect from your kind, but come on.”
There's enough dramatic material here to fuel a three-hour epic: music and self-discovery, sex and drugs, racial and political tension, all set against the backdrop of the war. But for better or worse, the film stays within the boundaries of light entertainment; no conflict is allowed to dominate more than a scene or two.
Potentially as big a homegrown hit as Red Dog, The Sapphires similarly depicts Australia's recent past in a way that glosses over anything too painful. Local forms of racism are addressed after a fashion, as are doubts about the purpose of sending troops to Vietnam. But the Sapphires rise above all this. Like ministering angels, they use music to heal pain, the pain of others as well as their own. As escapist fantasy, this works a treat; there are other films around to suggest what we might still want to escape from.