'The Sapphires': Down Under girl group faces the music

032813-Sapphires-600
The Sapphires: (from left) Gail (Deborah Mailman); Kay (Shari Sebbens), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tap- sell), with Chris O'Dowd as Dave.

Hey, I'm all for inspirational movie musicals about up-from-nowhere '60s girl groups, the songs they sing, the roadblocks they face, and the sisterhood that seals the deal. But in The Sapphires, a Down Under Dreamgirls about four Aboriginal lasses who face racist taunts at home - and face artillery fire when they go shimmying and shaking for the troops in Vietnam - the feel-good fakeness feels kind of bad.

Let's trivialize a legacy of cruelty and denigration, in a country where indigenous people suffered from centuries of human rights abuse! And let's make the carnage of Vietnam look like a paintball game!

I'm sure the folks behind The Sapphires - writer Tony Briggs, reworking his hit Australian play, and director Wayne Blair, both with Aboriginal bloodlines - mean well. But a sloppy, sentimental story line and pivotal plot turns that are only sketchily realized undermine the life-on-the-road misadventures. Inspired by a true story, the movie follows three sisters who grew up singing Aboriginal folk songs in a mission in the outback. Joined by their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), a half-caste who has been passing as white, Gail (the formidable Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) run into Dave Lovelace, a boozy Irish musician and clown-around-town, played by Chris O'Dowd.

He talks the girls into letting him be their manager, into changing their name (the Cummeragunja Songbirds), and changing their repertoire from Merle Haggard to Marvin Gaye. And then he talks them into a trip to Southeast Asia, to perform Motown covers for the GIs. The war-weary soldiers fall for the spirited foursome, and Dave falls for Gail.

But when they lose their military escort between base camps (sorry, those are the orders, Ma'am), Dave and the Sapphires are caught in a nasty enemy crossfire. Will the girls ever see their Nanny back on the reserve again?

Will they live to sing "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)?"

Oh, the suspense!


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

 


The Sapphires

Directed by Wayne Blair. With Shari Sebbens, Chris O'Dowd, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, Lynette Narkle, Tanika Lonesborough, Deborah Mailman, Nioka Brennan, Eka Darville, Tory Kittles. Distributed by The Weinstein Company.

Running time: 1 hours, 38 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking).