The Sapphires is one of the best times I've spent in a theater this year, blessed with a stoned soul '60s soundtrack and a star-making performance by Chris O'Dowd. You may recall him as the motorcycle cop with a crush on Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. You'll certainly remember him here.
O'Dowd has the pluck of the Irish in him, a rogue with a brogue impulsively muttering what he shouldn't say out loud yet making sure it's loud enough that whomever he's trying not to offend will be. It's a handy, hilarious habit for the role of Dave Lovelace, a white man as wicked as Wilson Pickett and wishing he were as black.
Dave is stuck in Australia running no-talent contests in a pub when opportunity walks unwelcome through the door. In 1968 the nation is still racially divided, so three singing Aboriginal sisters trying to win first prize don't stand a chance. Dave hears something special beneath their dark skin; pure talent with crystal harmonies signaling the next Supremes, even if they're singing a Merle Haggard tear-in-your-beer song.
With a flash of inspiration and a flask of liquid courage, Dave replies to a newspaper want ad, arranging an audition for the sisters with U.S. military officials seeking performers to entertain troops in Vietnam. This is the point when you should know The Sapphires is inspired by a true story, and these sisters — plus a cousin joining later — are based on real people.
Gail (Deborah Mailman) is the oldest and feistiest, a porcupine personality immediately clashing with Dave, so it's no surprise when romance blooms. Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) is the middle sister, a single mother with an earthy sex appeal. Julie (Jessica Mauboy) is the youngest and most talented singer, one of several sources of sibling rivalry raised in the screenplay.
The cousin is Kay (Shari Sebbens), whose light skin led to her abduction as a child from the Aboriginal reserve, to be assimilated in white society. Her acceptance of that world is a touchy subject with the sisters. It's a shameful chapter in Australian history previously dramatized in 2002's Rabbit-Proof Fence, and parallels between that and the American civil rights movement are clear in this movie, especially in the final reel.
Despite their in-fighting and Dave's occasional flubs, the women become popular entertainers on the combat trail. Director Wayne Blair uses that as an excuse to stage plenty of rousing musical numbers, and the four actors are indeed more talented with a melody behind the words they're speaking.
Even when it seems contrived The Sapphires is a feel-good movie in the most positive meaning of that term, thanks to the Motown music and O'Dowd's cheeky charm. Like the Temptations, I loved every sugar pie, honey bunch moment. I can't help myself.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him @StevePersall on Twitter.