The Sapphires (2012, Wayne Blair)

When we were about halfway through The Sapphires I figured something must go wrong otherwise the film would have a better reputation. Though you never know; music biopics do have their unfortunately hidden gems (no pun). Sapphires doesn’t succeed as a music biopic or a music pic or a biopic but it’s got some excellent performances and a sincere script (screenwriter and source play author Tony Briggs is son of one of the real-life principals).

Outside Don Battee not delivering in his big scene during the third act, which is a combination of the script and Battee, nothing really goes wrong so much as director Blair and co-writers Keith Thompson and Briggs turn the film, which promised to focus on the experiences of four Indigenous Australian women as they went from their home to Vietnam to perform as a soul quartet for the U.S. troops in 1968. Through the second act, two of the four women get their spotlights turned off while two of the other women then get the focus. But one of them only because she figures into top-billed Chris O’Dowd’s story arc in a more significant way than originally forecast.

It’s particularly frustrating because O’Dowd’s so good because Sapphires never just relies on him. Instead he has these killer moments as a stranded Irish soul music aficionado who “discovers” sisters Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, and Jessica Mauboy in a singing competition and soon finds himself involved in their scheme to become famous. Sort of a royal their; it’s mostly Tapsell and Mauboy, with Mailman being the responsible oldest sister, who immediately finds herself at odds with constant and somewhat malfunctioning drunk O’Dowd, who assumes the manager role, which just reminded me the movie opens up a big plot hole where they were going to do some character building for Mailman and instead just skips it. But at least she gets the set up, I suppose.

Briggs and Thompson do a good job plotting the script—it moves at a fantastic pace (the plot holes not obvious until it’s over, which is about all you can hope for with them) and is always entertaining. It’s most entertaining when it’s O’Dowd, but because O’Dowd gets more and more to do in the second half of the film as the sisters—who also have brought along cousin Shari Sebbens, who had been one of the stolen light-skinned Indigenous Australian children, which then causes a lot of drama as Mailman has let her anger over past behaviors fester. Weird and easy resolution to that subplot. It feels like Sapphires is missing four or six minutes where everyone decides the movie’s over and so they’re going to wrap things up but instead it’s just the wrap up. And even the wrap up is rushed and feels truncated, like Blair just doesn’t want to give his ostensible leads any more material, he just wants to showcase having O’Dowd in his movie.

It’s a bummer.

But O’Dowd’s still charming as hell.

The best performances are Mailman and Sebbens. Both ought to be better because their parts ought to be better. Youngest Mauboy gets ignored when the adults are talking—or flirting—but she’s good with the little she gets. Tapsell gets the least of the four; she’s good, definitely, but it’s the worst part by far. And Mauboy’s part is bad. Like, they skip very important character development for her all the time. But then when the film gets to the postscript real-life biography title cards… it turns out the women were all far more interesting after their time as a girl group than during their time as a girl group.

Except in the historical context, something the film heavily embraces but then abandons. It’s smooth sailing until the third act and then it’s immediately going down. It’s never a race to see if they can finish before the film goes under—there’s O’Dowd—but… only because it’s obviously going for unambitious and mediocre but also sincere and competent. All fine enough things.

Pretty good photography from Warwick Thornton until the nighttime war action and then not really. Blair does better with the war action than he needs to do; it’s the only place where he shows any directorial flourish, the rest of the time just relying on the actors. But there were plenty of opportunities for said flourish in the other parts, he just doesn’t take any.

Excellent production design from Melinda Doring and costume design by Tess Schofield.

It’d be nice if Sapphires were as impressive as its cast. Or if it even knew how to properly showcase them.

Outside O’Dowd, obviously. Blair’s got showcasing O’Dowd down. But Mailman, Mauboy, and Sebbens deserve it more. And Tapsell too. But after a certain point, Sapphires wants to be about everything except its title characters. Like I said, it’s a bummer.

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