Exuberant but fairly formulaic, this Australian film tells the story of the 1960s transformation of an all-girl singing group from the outback into a pop-music sensation. Based somewhat on true experiences, this backstage story is the kind of charming fluff we return to again and again. The twist is that the girls – Gail (Mailman), Julie (Mauboy), Kay (Sebbens), and Cynthia (Tapsell) – are Aboriginal, and they get their start singing country & western music in tatty bars where they’re jeered at and rejected with racial epithets. Then their Svengali – a louche Irishman named Dave (O’Dowd) – hears them perform and convinces them to switch their material to American R&B. Dave works to help them polish their act and presentation, and they earn a spot on an entertainment tour for the troops in Vietnam. And the music of Motown thrusts yet one more movie over the finish line.
The women all deliver genial performances, and O’Dowd (Bridesmaids, This Is 40) demonstrates his versatile charm as a leading man. The film captures the trappings of the Sixties accurately, with its miniskirts, black American GIs, and the defiant mood of American soul music (although Dave has his work cut out for him convincing the outback’s Cummeragunja Songbirds to switch to the upbeat sound from their morose C&W crooning). Along the way to their transformation into the Sapphires, a little bit of social commentary is inserted through the backstory of one light-skinned member’s victimization by Australia’s forced adoption policy, in which children were taken from their families by the government and placed in white boarding schools. Mostly, however, The Sapphires sidesteps political issues and is instead a joyous celebration of music’s potential for emotional uplift.