Ah, nostalgia. Much as 80s kids love movies based on toy lines, baby boomers love to watch movies that present a gauzy look at their formidable years, especially if they are imbued with a glimmer at “how far we’ve come” set to a soundtrack of golden hits. Like a racially-charged That Thing You Do, The Sapphires hits that target square on the head, albeit in a manner that makes it seem a bit fresher due to it being about a quartet of Aboriginal Australian girls that begin singing soul tunes in the 1960s. All snark aside, sometimes these movies just plain work, even on us cynics, and The Sapphires is definitely one of them.
A good deal of this rests on the shoulders of Chris O’Dowd. As a man sleeping in his car and torturously hosting local talent competitions, he discovers the girls and sees them as his ticket to something better, offering to manage them. And he does a surprisingly effective job, guiding them through a professional audition for a place in the USO, entertaining troops in Vietnam. O’Dowd is probably most known in America as the cop from Bridesmaids, a low-key role that allowed him to be charming but certainly wasn’t very meaty. A much better showcase of his talent is Graham Linehan’s beloved-among-the-Anglophile-set Brit-com, The IT Crowd, in which he popularized the phrase, “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”
How an Irish comic actor making inroads to Hollywood managed to secure a role in an Australian feel-good flick is beyond me, but he makes the most of it, portraying an ex-pat with enough Motown in his soul to choke a camel. His performance feels effortless, yet he sells everything with utter sincerity. He manages to guide the girls away from their country music roots, lobbing such critical bombs as “Ninety percent of recorded music is crap. The other ten percent is soul.”
With such a statement, it is understood that we’re going to get some darn good tunes in the soundtrack and the film delivers. Even though playing CCR’s Run Through the Jungle over a scene in 1958 seems overly anachronistic. But that’s just being picky. There aren’t any original tunes, sadly, but the renditions of R&B classics are outstanding.
It is possible that the girls are better known in Australia, but they are certainly unknown to most in the US. But then I would figure I know more than most about worldwide pop culture and when I’m thinking of Australian actors my mind immediately leaps to Yahoo Serious, so a little research would probably help. A quick jump to wikipedia shows mostly TV miniseries credits and an Australian Idol contestant. Anyway, they are all very good in their roles. Each brings their own unique personality to the film and they manage to layer their performances just enough to keep them from being archtypes.
Instead, they exist as more fully-formed characters than they may otherwise be in lesser hands, and using the common tropes as a springboard to more intimate internal aspects they create a welcome chemistry with each other in which you actually feel like they have a shared history.
Another interesting aspect in the film is how, despite being a film mostly set in Australia, it focuses a surprising amount on recent American history. Most of the news clips are of Americans and the death of Martin Luther King has a decided impact on the story. It can be a bit jarring to go from a Kennedy newsclip to the Australian outback. Whether events in the US really did effect people on the other side of the world that much or not, it’s shorthand that can be used to sell the movie outside of the Southern Hemisphere, so once again, it’s just being picky.
The Sapphires may not be surprising, but it’s witty and effective and highly worth a look while in theaters.
(Three and a half damns out of five.)