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TELLURIDE, Colo. — The Sapphires received a 10-minute standing ovation when it screened as a world premiere at Cannes back in May, and in its native country of Australia, it has just become the highest-grossing Australian film of the year. But, still, some questioned if the movie, a musical dramedy about an Aboriginal singing group that toured Vietnam in the late 1960s, could also play well stateside. Any doubts about its crossover appeal were put firmly to rest last night and again this afternoon when the film was screened at the Telluride Film Festival, where it was greeted with similarly rapturous applause. It appears quite clear to this awards observer that The Weinstein Co., which acquired the film shortly before Cannes, has another big hit and awards contender on its hands.
The film is based on a true story that was first chronicled in a play written by Tony Briggs, the son of one of The Sapphires’ four members, that was subsequently adapted into a screenplay by Briggs and Keith Thompson and brought to the screen by director Wayne Blair.
It revolves around three young female Aboriginals — dark-skinned Australians who were kept segregated until 1967 and weren’t even regarded as human beings, instead classified as Flora and Fauna. They display a great prowess for singing, but realize that they will never know how far it can take them as long as they remain in their hometown.
They encounter a drunk Irishman who loves music but has never fulfilled his own potential — Bridesmaids star Chris Dowd, utterly wonderful here — who takes an interest in their abilities, and who agrees to serve as their manager as they prepare to enter a contest that might offer them a chance to show off their talents. Indeed, they are so anxious to get out of town and find a better future that they are not only interested but excited by the prospect of a contest allowing them to travel to war-torn Vietnam to perform for American troops. The manager eventually convinces the singers to shift their focus from country music to soul music — explaining that both are about loss, but the former is just whining about it while the latter is about fighting to overcome it — and, of course, they ultimately win. (The group eventually expands to include their light-skinned cousin, who had disowned her community years earlier.)
What they find in Vietnam is that a whole world exists in which their skin color matters far less than it does at home. They establish relationships with an eclectic group of people, achieve great success, and also, unfortunately, also bear witness to the horrors of the war as they travel throughout the country performing for they troops. They are told that the black Americans fighting in Vietnam, who are also treated as second-class citizens back in their own home, might understandably wonder what they are fighting for, but that the girls give those troops — and people of all colors — inspiration and hope.
O’Dowd couldn’t be more endearing as the goofball manager, and the four singers — Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) — have beautiful voices and are more than capable actresses, as well. With great production values (including convincing war scenes), a true and tearjerking story, and music that keeps audiences tapping their toes from beginning to end, this film proves to be everything that 2006’s Dreamgirls tried to be, and more.
In a perfect world, the Academy would embrace the film and O’Dowd’s performance (which could probably qualify in the best supporting actor race). It’s likelier, though, that it will show up at the Golden Globe Awards, at which musicals and comedies are separated from dramas and given their own categories.
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