The times might be troubled, but the focus is squarely on jubilation in The Sapphires, a jewel-bright charmer about four indigenous women whose powerhouse voices catapulted them onto the '60s-era world stage as Australia's answer to The Supremes.
First-time filmmaker Wayne Blair, an actor and theater director, has crafted an exuberant celebration of Aboriginality that fizzes with humor and heart; its soulfulness goes beyond the embrace of a jukebox full of Motown, Stax and Atlantic Records hits.
It's a sparkling debut, and the crowd at its out-of-competition midnight screening agreed, giving the film a 10-minute standing ovation. The showcase slot, previously occupied by Aussie crowd-pleasers Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, bodes well: Aussies are going to give this film a joyous bear hug upon its Aug. 9 release and the Weinstein Company has worldwide distribution rights.
Racial prejudice, social upheaval and the reverberating shockwaves of the Vietnam War are all there in Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs' screenplay, based on a play Briggs wrote in 2005 about his mother and three aunts and their true-life journey from a far-flung Australian mission to war-torn Vietnam to sing for the American troops in 1969, barely a year after the referendum giving citizenship rights to Aborigines.
But the political is largely eschewed for the personal. A determinedly upbeat mood prevails as the four Koori soul divas, led by Australian household names Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy, shimmy and shine, fall in love and reconnect as family.
The film's easy humor and playful bounce are established early during a scene in a dusty outback pub, where lanky boozer Dave (Chris O'Dowd) discovers sisters Gail (Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) singing in a local talent contest. The bigoted townsfolk shun them, but he convinces them to swap Country and Western for soul, promising to make them stars.
With their ambitious younger sister Julie (Mauboy) and confused cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), they leave the mission where they grew up and head to Southeast Asia, where they dodge bullets and belt out tunes by Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops.
Aussie R&B singer and Australian Idol graduate Mauboy is sexy and sure-footed as the feisty lead singer, delivering roof-raising renditions of classic Motown tunes, while Mailman (the superbly talented actress from Rabbit-Proof Fence) is by turns flinty and tender. Following his endearing turn in Bridesmaids, Chris O'Dowd asserts himself as one of the most effortlessly funny actors working today.
The storytelling is linear and expeditious, if occasionally a little woolly. But try to keep the goosebumps at bay when The Sapphires harmonize on "Ngarra Burra Ferra," a gospel song in their native Yorta Yorta language, down the phone line to their mom.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, out of competition
Cast: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director :Wayne Blair No rating, 103 minutes