The emotions of soul music are irresistibly universal. The same is true of soul-music clichés. Based on a true story, The Sapphires tells the tale of four ambitious young Aboriginal girls from Australia who come of age performing before American serviceman in 1968 Vietnam. And yet the film is afflicted by a curious lack of cultural specificity. Though the Aboriginal angle would seem to lend a certain distinction, the girls come off as generic underdogs, no different, in some ways, from the pasty Europeans out to play the gutbucket soul of black Americans in The Commitments, a crowd-pleaser The Sapphires suggests throughout.
The always-welcome Chris O’Dowd delights in the flashy character-actor role of a drunken and dissolute keyboard player always chasing the next hustle. O’Dowd stumbles upon the find of his career when he discovers a trio of Aboriginal sisters whose weakness for Merle Haggard belies the kind of big, lusty voices custom-made for American soul. O’Dowd manages to convince the girls’ parents to let them leave for an exciting but dangerous trip to perform for the troops in the nightclubs of Southeast Asia, but his biggest hurdle is battling the confrontational attitude of headstrong eldest sister Deborah Mailman.
Like an assured veteran cover band doomed to never evolve beyond playing local dives, The Sapphires knows all the moves and riffs, and delivers the expected beats with aplomb, from O’Dowd teaching his skeptical pupils the basics of soul to the girls lustily embracing their sexuality with a choreographed bump-and-grind number in front of a horny, lonely, and demanding audience of servicemen. Rakish antihero O’Dowd is charming as a ne’er-do-well who finally finds something to believe in, but the steely toughness that makes Mailman a formidable antagonist renders her an unsatisfying central love interest for O’Dowd. Mailman is tough and aggressive because she has to be to survive and protect her siblings in a racist and sexist environment; but there’s no hint of underlying vulnerability to her brusque, combative exterior, so O’Dowd’s attraction to her rings false. The Sapphires understands intuitively that cheap tricks still work most of the time, and it is not without its silky, assured virtues—but originality is not one of them.