Film review | The Sapphires – Chris O’Dowd stars in an Australian music drama with heart and soul

Based on a hit stage musical and inspired by a true story, The Sapphires is an infectiously entertaining movie with a great soul music soundtrack.

It’s 1968 and three feisty Aboriginal sisters – spunky Gail (Deborah Mailman), sassy Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and talented Julie (Australian idol winner Jessica Mauboy) – are singing country and western songs in a tatty outback talent contest when their potential is spotted by Chris O’Dowd’s boozy, soul-loving Irish music promoter Dave.

He gets them to drop the country numbers and launches them as soul-singing group The Sapphires. (‘You’re black and you’re singing country and western music. It’s just wrong,’ he says before the makeover.) Recruiting their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), they sign up to entertain US troops in Vietnam, little realising how hazardous the enterprise will be.

Writer Tony Briggs has turned the real-life experiences of his mother and aunts into a charming feelgood tale, but he doesn’t neglect the reality of the era’s racism – significantly, the mixed-race Kay is one of the stolen generation of Aboriginals who were taken from their homes to be raised white.

Overall, though, the film’s mood is resolutely upbeat. There are a few wobbles in the script – not enough time is spent on the girls’ transition from scrappy outback singers to slick soul group; and the Vietnam episodes don’t always convince – but O’Dowd’s feckless charmer holds things together and he finds a sparky match in Mailman’s strong-willed Gail.

Shown as the Nintendo Gala at this year’s BFI London Film Festival and in cinemas from Wednesday 7th November.

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