Each year the London Film Festival delivers a programme that seeks to enlighten audiences as well as entertain them, but while these Reithian values are to be admired, rarely will you find a film that ticks both of these boxes. Australian comedy drama The Sapphires, which premieres at the festival on Monday evening, shines out for that very reason.
Irishman Chris O’Dowd headlines this true-life tale playing Dave Lovelace, the ex-pat manager of an Aboriginal singing quartet in 1968 when overt racism meant that indigenous people didn’t have a voice in public life. It’s the girls’ indomitable spirit in combination with a smooth Motown sound that gives the story an upbeat tempo and O’Dowd’s rascally charm that keeps a steady laugh count.
Dave first encounters the girls at a talent contest in a dustbowl town where he emcees and tickles the ivories between swigging pints of beer. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell play sisters Gail, Julie and Cynthia who venture off home territory to enter the contest and who, despite the sneering reaction of white locals, carry on singing loud and proud.
They’re later joined by Kari, a fair-skinned cousin (Shari Sebbens) and the victim of a nefarious government programme that forcibly removed mixed race children from their Aboriginal communities to be re-socialised for service in the white community. Director Phillip Noyce tackled this particular dark chapter of Australia’s history in his 2002 drama Rabbit-Proof Fence (also featuring Mailman) – a stirring drama which, even so, made little impact at the box office.
The commercial appeal of this story is much more obvious and, in a way, it’s probably more heartfelt. Writer-director Wayne Blair (making his big screen debut) has talked about his own upbringing in the Aboriginal community as being a motivating factor to getting the film off the ground, but inspiring filmgoers around the world is an even trickier feat. If they feel they’re being preached to, they’re likely to switch off. But give them gospel music, a bit of spangle and a showbiz smile and you’re better placed to grab their attention.
Certainly, this approach works for The Sapphires as they set off on their first tour, lifting crowds off their feet with stunning renditions of classics like Hold On, I’m Coming, What a Man and I’ll Take You There. But if contending with small-mindedness at home wasn’t enough, the girls are also faced with the threat of being shot and killed, because the only gigs they can get are in war-torn Vietnam…
Not since Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. has cinema been graced with a feel-good war movie, but Blair’s film is pure bright lights and buoyant optimism compared with Altman’s dark, satirical approach. It isn’t always entirely convincing. The girls fit rather too neatly into their Spice Girlish categories (scary, sweet, sexy and shy) and the various romantic subplots feel similarly shoe-horned, but the chemistry onstage and O’Dowd’s cheeky twinkle help to smooth those rough edges. Surely, this gem won’t stay hidden for long.