Friday, 19 October 2012

LFF: The Sapphires Review

Director: Wayne Blair

Writer: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson

Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Maulboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles

Plot: Four aborigine women with a great talent for singing struggle during the turbulent era of the late 1960s when it comes to equal rights. Their own country won’t accept them for who they are but when an Irish talent scout, Dave (O’Dowd), stumbles upon them, he brings them to Vietnam to perform for the troops (without the matter of race preventing their success).

The stage show of The Sapphires is lovingly referred to in many sequences of the film adaptation. Blair’s direction is very theatrical – whether it is in framing, sets, or prop and character positioning – and completely befitting of this type of film. The story based on factual events is extraordinary and at times seems hard to believe; this is where the artificial aspects of the aesthetic are incorporated appropriately. It’s a tale of magical talent and spirit – juxtaposing natural acting and a fantastically phenomenal plot.

The Sapphires in an exercise in exuberance and often it seems tough to restrain yourself from getting up in the cinema audience and applauding after song numbers. Watching the film is like being in seats of an archaic theatre, watching a story unfolds partly through set decoration but also from your imagination. As the four ladies get up to sing on stage your mind does envisage a bigger band, a larger audience, and a grander stage all around the Sapphires – as much as you may do seeing it as a play. On occasion the feigned elements bleed through and some characterisations of the Sapphire sisterhood drifts into token territory but this is even satirically noted by Dave giving each band member a title (“the lead singer”, “the pretty one”, “dance captain”).

With moments of political commentary the film is not completely light and entertaining. What makes the four singers’ story so interesting are the hardships they had to face in order to achieve something. Where the emotional punches are made (as well as some actual punches thrown in one scene) they ring strong and true. The tonality has, after years of stage tours and receptions, been tidied to both entertain and inform.

O’Dowd plays a part uncommon in his opus so far – advertising his funny bone as normal but also a terrific singing voice. The most attention-grabbing aspect is, however, the new talent in the form of the Sapphire actresses. The women all bring their own history and experience to their roles, giving the film enormous vitality and allure. Deborah Mailman (who has played the role of Gail for a number of years already) secures the drama whilst the rest of the women dance around with genuine joy. The soul that Dave strives for in the Sapphires’ performance is so evident and infectious thanks to the actresses obvious adoration of the music. Jessica Mauboy has in real life released two solo albums and her casting as the lead vocalist was very smart. Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell are given less grounding within the narrative but can still outshine the other cast members if need be, as well as taking over vocals when the occasion calls for it. Tapsell, especially, has a fiery quality that immediately takes the edge off some of the more gloomy issues of discrimination that her character and supporting family face.

The Sapphires is unexpectedly superb for a film based on the monotonous under-achiever story arc. It could have become overpowered by cliché and dainty sentimentality but it remains focused in telling a dramatic story mixed with tremendous soul. The music has been chosen fantastically well and the soundtrack elevates the film to new heights (far beyond the tripe of ABBA in Mamma Mia and criminal covers in Glee). The acting and direction is great, and even with some tedious plot points its aim to delight is completely accomplished. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but for those wanting a fun trip to the cinema it will certainly pass the hours well; this film is an absolute crowd-pleaser that will have you toe-tapping and finger-clicking all the way through. 

By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on Blogomatic3000. The Gala report for The Sapphires can be found here

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