The Sapphires
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In the ‘60s, lots of little girls around the world dreamed of putting on sparkly dresses and becoming the Supremes, singing before cheering audiences. The Sapphires, loosely based on a true story, depicts four young Australian Aboriginal girls who get to do just that. But, far from the glamour of performances on American soil, they were about to depart on an exciting, terrifying adventure pulled straight from some of the darkest pages of our history.

The girls, played by indigenous actresses Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, and Shari Sebbens, connect with alcoholic, washed-up musical talent scout Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) when he sees them perform in a talent competition. Afterward, the girls approach him with a proposal: there’s an ad calling for auditions to entertain troops serving in Vietnam; will he help? Dave sees this as a last-ditch chance to resuscitate his in-the-toilet management career. After a period of begging and pleading with their families, they get the go-ahead. They pass the audition, transform into a Motown-girl group, and land in Saigon.

Instead of the huge, exciting USO-style gigs they expect, the group finds themselves traveling by Jeep through the jungle, singing for small platoons in remote outposts. Although the soldiers they entertain are thrilled, the girls must now face first-hand the harsh realities of war.

Just as ’60s music propelled war protests on this continent, the Sapphires’ story addresses social issues in that hemisphere. There’s an important flashback about the practice of Australian whites sieging the Aboriginal settlements, seeking light-skinned children to remove from their families and raise as white—a practice also carried out against light-skinned Native American children in this country. And there’s no missing the irony that the poverty-stricken girls are singing for predominantly poor black, Latino, and white boys—the ones who didn’t have money or influence to escape the draft.

The heart of this film, though, is celebration of life. It’s about how Motown soul music brought the group and the soldiers together. In the midst of the heat, the rain, and the mud, there are family fights, boy brawls, romance, silliness, and a lot of fun. But, mostly, there’s music to get them all singing, dancing, and partying, forgetting—a little, for just a few hours—the danger that could be watching them from just beyond those trees.

The downside of The Sapphires is that it covers too much territory, leaving relationships and characters (including the girls) underdeveloped; it could almost have been two films. Chris O’Dowd’s character is given the most to do, and he owns the screen as the talented but often unstrung manager-with-a-heart.

In the end, it’s fun, the music’s infectious, and it’s a feel-good look into the ’60s. For those who lived through it: nostalgia; for those who didn’t: a heartwarming insight into those turbulent years. Either way, I dare you not to jump up and dance.

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