Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99

Movies

Entertainment Movies

'The Sapphires' a tuneful trip to Vietnam ★★ 1/2

Some diversions invite comparison more readily than others. Take "The Sapphires," the most chipper film ever set in Vietnam.

Already, many have seen it and liked it. If you enjoyed "Strictly Ballroom" or "The Commitments," which is to say if you fell for the slightly pushy charms of those show business fables (one fantasy Australian, the other Irish, though directed by an Englishman), then chances are you'll go for this true-ish story of an Aborigine singing group entertaining the American troops, enemy fire be damned, in 1968 — like Bob Hope and Raquel Welch, New South Wales division.

"The Sapphires" began as a stage play in Melbourne, Australia, in 2004, written by Tony Briggs, set one year after the national referendum that expanded, at long last, the rights of the indigenous Australian population. The laws changed, but the racist attitudes toward Aborigines were, and are, a lot slower to adapt. This is the background of the story, based on the lives of Briggs' mother and aunt. One Aussie theater reviewer correctly predicted nearly a decade ago that "The Sapphires" would make a pretty fair movie. And here we are.

The director, Wayne Blair, makes his feature film debut with "The Sapphires," and with the casting of "Bridesmaids" co-star Chris O'Dowd as the Koori girl group's manager, the movie's focus has tilted away somewhat from the ladies toward the amiably opportunistic Irishman running their newfound lives. The McCrae sisters are Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Gail (Deborah Mailman, from the stage version's original cast). Natural singers, they encounter Dave Lovelace (O'Dowd) at a local bar, where he runs the weekly talent show.

Once these three hit the stage, Dave hears the sound of potential money, and one audition later they're off for Vietnam, along with the fourth member of The Sapphires. She is Kay (Shari Sebbens), the sisters' lighter-skinned sibling who was kidnapped as a child to be raised and educated with so-called white ways.

On tour behind enemy lines, there are affairs with soldiers to juggle, while Dave gradually realizes he's in love with Gail, the mother hen of the group. His declaration of love in "The Sapphires" is interrupted by mortar fire, which sends the film briefly into more dire territory. Then we're back to the Motown, Stax and Atlantic label hits. (Initially The Sapphires favor country and western, but Dave is a soul man through and through.)

The soldiers we meet on the fly in "The Sapphires" are an astonishingly clean-cut and drug-free group, in keeping with the film's desire to placate rather than provoke. Now and then a character may note the oppression of blacks in the U.S. versus Australia, but only now and then.

The performers improve it, or save it, depending on your viewpoint. O'Dowd's uniquely wry charisma offsets the sincerity and sparkle of the leading ladies, all entertaining. The script is corny and cliched and goes the way you expect it to go. But those things never stopped any movie from working with an audience.

The real star is cinematographer Warwick Thornton, whose vibrant color palette sets the desired storybook mood. Thornton wrote and directed his own Australian film, "Samson and Delilah," whose toughness has little in common with this good-timey jukebox musical. Let's make a deal: If you see "The Sapphires," seek out "Samson and Delilah," too, sometime.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'The Sapphires' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking)
Running time: 1:39
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Who are the early Oscars 2014 favorites?

    Who are the early Oscars 2014 favorites?

    Now that Ben Affleck has shaved his good-luck Oscar beard, it's safe to officially close the book on the 2012-13 awards season so we can cast a small peek at the treasures that await. What will the best picture race look like? Here are 10 candidates (release dates may change): -- Glenn Whipp, Tribune...

  • 10 movies to see this winter

    10 movies to see this winter

    Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips picks 10 movies you should see in the coming months.

  • 'Magic Mike XXL' review: The complete package

    'Magic Mike XXL' review: The complete package

    "Magic Mike XXL" comes up a little short compared with the original, director Steven Soderbergh's blithe and bonny Channing Tatum showcase inspired by Tatum's salad days as a male stripper. This time the jokes are heavier, more on-the-nose, though a surprising percentage of them work anyway.

  • 'Terminator Genisys' review: Rooting for the apocalypse

    'Terminator Genisys' review: Rooting for the apocalypse

    Humanity gets a do-over in "Terminator Genisys," the fifth in the franchise begun in 1984 with "The Terminator." But this screwy revision of the previous "Terminator" movies is so muddled and yakky, you may find yourself rooting for the apocalypse. At one point Arnold Schwarzenegger is thrown through...

  • 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' a mash note to movies

    'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' a mash note to movies

    The big noise from this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is a weaselly liar of a movie. (It's also good.) It comes on full of self-deprecating bluster, professing no interest in jerking tears a la "The Fault in Our Stars," as it lays out its tale of a Pittsburgh high...

  • 'A Little Chaos' review: Garden variety costume drama

    'A Little Chaos' review: Garden variety costume drama

    "A Little Chaos" is all too tidy as it imposes a predictable, pat modern sensibility on a most unconvincing depiction of late 17th-century French aristocratic life, with Kate Winslet starring as a green-thumbed widow hired to design part of the gardens at Versailles for Alan Rickman's Louis XIV....

  • 'Ted 2' has some critics in stitches, some indifferent

    'Ted 2' has some critics in stitches, some indifferent

    Bathroom humor meets courtroom drama in "Ted 2," Seth MacFarlane's sequel to the hit 2012 comedy about a hard-living, foul-mouthed teddy bear brought to life by a wish from his best buddy, John (Mark Wahlberg).

  • 'Inside Out': Pixar delivers a rewarding emotional journey, reviews say

    'Inside Out': Pixar delivers a rewarding emotional journey, reviews say

    In its previous 14 animated movies, Pixar has explored many imaginative worlds: one populated by anthropomorphic automobiles, another where a rat cooks haute cuisine, yet another where humans have trashed the planet and retreated into mindless consumption. But the studio's latest feature, "Inside...

Comments
Loading

73°