**1/2 (out of four)
The recent, terrible Dwayne Johnson vehicle “Snitch” was “inspired by a true story,” which merely meant the U.S. has controversial drug enforcement policies and the movie was something that hypothetically could happen as a result. Also “inspired by a true story,” the entertaining but thin musical drama “The Sapphires” stems from something significant and more concrete: A group of Australian aboriginal women, having only received full human rights a year earlier in 1967, travel to Vietnam to perform for American troops. The film is adapted from the play by co-writer Tony Briggs, the son of one of those real-life women.
As a determinedly feel-good movie, “The Sapphires,” which won several Australian awards and earned a 10-minute standing ovation last year at Cannes in 2012, grooves on great music but struggles with conflict. A trio of sisters, comprising young mom Julie (Australian pop star Jessica Mauboy), boy-crazy Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and uptight Gail (Deborah Mailman, who appeared in the “Sapphires” stage production), compete in a singing contest but lose due to racial bias. Dave (Chris O’Dowd of “This is 40”), the event’s boozing MC whose favorite phrase is “sweet tits,” sees the gals’ potential. After their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) very quickly overcomes her embarrassment toward her darker-skinned family, the quartet becomes The Sapphires, with Dave, a soul music hound with a howling voice himself, on board as manager and keyboard player.
“Can you make it sound blacker?” Dave asks after the group, mostly containing country music fans, delivers an extremely tame take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” O’Dowd’s hilarious in the movie, and much of the film’s energy comes from his humor and effort to harness his new partners’ talents into something marketable. Aside from the whole war zone element, whose danger director Wayne Blair doesn’t handle well, “The Sapphires” strongly recalls everything from “Dreamgirls” (Julie replaces Gail as lead singer, to big sis’ chagrin) to “Almost Famous” to last year’s tremendous “Not Fade Away.”
Note: This doesn’t harm the music a bit.
Mauboy has one hell of a voice, and the Sapphires’ vocal performances speak to the endless power of great soul songs. Yet Blair treats racism and the war experience very gently, and romantic business between Dave and one of the sisters is a contrived distraction. I also wish “The Sapphires” didn’t lazily mention at the end that the real women, depicted as determined music stars-in-the-making, ultimately opted not to pursue music. After all that effort? Why not?
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