The Sapphires: Cannes Review

The Sapphires film still - H
Aboriginal sisters are doin’ it for themselves in this music-filled sparkler from Australia.

First-time filmmaker Wayne Blair has crafted a sparkling charmer following the '60s pop singing group and received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.

CANNES - The times they may be troubled, but the focus is squarely on sing-it-sisters jubilation in this jewel-bright charmer about four spunky 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 theatre 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.

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It’s a sparkling debut, and the festive crowd at its out-of-competition midnight screening in Cannes 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 for the Goalpost Pictures production: Aussies are going to give this film a joyous bear hug upon its August 9 release and the Weinstein Company, which has worldwide distribution rights, will ensure the grapevine gets humming.

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.

Herein lies a quibble. Commitment to accentuating the positive often leads to scenes ending too abruptly, with reactions swiftly curtailed whenever things threaten to get ugly. Chin up, bright smile and on with the show starts to look a bit off-beam when soldiers are having their legs blown off nearby.

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A popping 1960s palette definitely favors sparkle over grit. Warwick Thornton, who displayed a gift for the transcendent image in his unflinching 2010 Camera d’Or-winning debut Samson & Delilah, is on board as director of photography and he’s working pretty here, with crystalline lighting and hyper-saturated colors.

The film’s easy humor and playful bounce are established early during a scene set 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 Dave convinces them to swap Country and Western for soul, promising to make them over into stars.

With their mulishly ambitious younger sister Julie (Mauboy) and quietly confused cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) they leave the mission where they grew up and head to South East Asia where they dodge bullets and belt out show-stopping tunes by Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops and Linda Lyndell.

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 (a superbly talented actress with credits including Bran Nue Dae and the historical drama Rabbit Proof Fence) is by turns flinty and tender as the protective mama-bear of the group.

Following his endearing turn in Bridesmaids, Chris O’Dowd asserts himself as one of the most effortlessly funny actors working today, his pliant, Mr. Congeniality demeanor yielding and snapping like an elastic band in his banter with Mailman’s firebrand.

There’s a pleasing looseness to the sisters’ exchanges, too, and even when they’re scritching and scratching like alley cats, good humor bubbles up from beneath.

The storytelling is linear and expeditious, if occasionally a little wooly. But try to keep the goosebumps at bay when the far-from-home 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
Production company: Goalpost Pictures
Director: Wayne Blair
Screenwriters: Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs
Producers: Rosemary Blight and Kylie Du Fresne
Director of photography: Warwick Thornton
Production designer: Melinda Doring
Costume designer: Tess Schofield
Music: Cezary Skubiszewski
Editor: Dany Cooper
Sales: Goalpost Film Limited
No rating, 103 minutes