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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014

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Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Sheri Sebbens make up "The Sapphires," now playing.
Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Sheri Sebbens make up "The Sapphires," now playing.

"The Sapphires" sings a sweet feel-good number

A good song gets in your bones when you hear it. Even if the lyrics are dumb or vapid, sometimes a song just makes you feel good, good enough to sing along and dance – or at least tap your feet or sway a bit if you’re in public.

The Australian music dramedy "The Sapphires" is that sensation in film form. I’m won’t say that I was singing and bopping in my seat as the movie went along (and that’s the story I’m sticking with), but I will say that by the midway point, director Wayne Blair’s film and its unapologetically feel-good warmth and energy won me over completely.

Aussies Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell star as a band of musically gifted Aboriginal sisters during the late ’60s. Gail (Mailman) is the group’s straight-talking, strong-willed leader, Cynthia (Tapsell) is bubbly and light-hearted, and Julie (Mauboy) is the youngest but also has the strongest pipes.

While America was in the midst of a heated fight over civil rights, across the Pacific, the Aboriginal people were having their own struggles. Up until 1971, the government took many indigenous children with light skin and white blood from their families and gave them to new adoptive parents in the hopes of turning them into "civilized" Australians, trained to hate their origins. Dark-skinned Aboriginal people were left to the outskirts, where they were considered a part of the "floura and fauna" by the government, which assumed they would eventually just die out.

Despite the inevitable racist taunts and glares, the trio ventures out from their isolated desert mission town to sing some country numbers at a nearby talent contest. They lose Bigot Idol, but during the show, they impress hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck –and I should add fictional – manager Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, the Irish scene stealer from "Bridesmaids"). Dave gets the ladies to ditch the country music and pick up his personal preference: soul. They also hesitantly pick up Kay (Sheri Sebbens, making her film debut), a childhood friend stolen by the government and refitted for white society.

Dave teaches them some dance moves and some songs – many actual covers by Mauboy, a one-time runner-up on Australia’s "American Idol" – and their talents do the rest, taking them all the way to Vietnam, where they perform for troops.

Of course, there’s drama along the way. Dave’s laid-back lifestyle and ideas conflict with Gail’s strong personality and concern for her sisters, the relationship between Kay and Gail is still damaged and oh yeah, there’s a war going on all around them.

The script, written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (the son of one the actual Sapphires) doesn’t really care too much about these little dramas. Every time one of these issues pops up, the movie pretty much laughs it off or quickly moves on to something new. A fight between Gail and Kay – complete with fisticuffs – almost immediately transitions to Gail and Dave quickly talking and then flirting alongside a river.

Normally, hitting on this many subplots so lightly with such reckless abandon would be a detriment, but in the case of "The Sapphires," it works in its favor. Blair and company seem to have as little interest in getting bogged down in tedious and hackneyed biopic in-dramas as the audience. They’re simply content to tell a spirited tale about some talented people doing some special things together, so they add just enough tension to give the film a little weight and let the feel-good enthusiasm carry it into audience’s hearts.

It’s a smart move considering the cast at Blair’s disposal. All four of the leading ladies effortlessly light up the screen, especially newcomer Sebbens and Mailman, an award winner in Australia who hits all the right notes. Then there’s O’Dowd, whose droopy dog everyman routine never ceases to charm. Memo to Hollywood: Get this man a well-written comedy star vehicle and preferably soon.

Despite all of its loaded components – the Vietnam War, racism in Australia – "The Sapphires" never tries to do more or be more than it wants. Blair doesn’t mean to get too deep or challenging. He aims to please, and frankly, it’s nice to see a movie not just eager to please but good at it too.

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