A trio of Aboriginal gals belting out a country and western tune get a stony response at a rural Australian talent show. Dave (Chris O’Dowd), the boozy Irish MC, can see these girls have got genuine promise, but this is the outback, it’s 1968, and there’s no way white Australia is ready to give them a second glance. Where next then? Vietnam is the unlikely answer, but the brothers fighting aren’t country fans either – it’s time for these girls to get into the soul groove.
Based, incredibly, on a true story, and developed from a successful stage musical, this is a big-hearted, barnstorming put-on-a-show crowdpleaser. Beneath the spangly exterior, however, it has surprisingly trenchant things to say about Australian identity and the bitter legacy of institutionalised racism. Of course, none of this would really hit home unless we believed in The Sapphires as authentic soul sisters, achieved thanks to ‘Australian Idol’ finalist Jessica Mauboy’s sumptuous lead vocals, and astute song selections from the Motown, Stax and Atlantic songbooks.
With rising star O’Dowd in command of both the comic timing and emotional grace notes and beautifully playing off Deborah Mailman as the group’s alpha female, the movie is gutsy and entertaining enough to have us forgiving its occasional credibility glitches and obviously CGI-ed battlefront visuals. Shoring everything up, though, is a determined linking of Aboriginal and African-American civil rights causes, leading to a spectacular finale which rejigs showbiz-chronicle formula to startling and emotive purpose. A gem.