Ah, Chris O’Dowd! Whether you loved him in Bridesmaids or detested him on TV’s Girls, you’ve probably been amused by the antics of this lumpen 33-year-old Irishman with the blocky physique, close-set eyes, and delightful sense of humor. This character actor graduates to leading man in the thoroughly winning Australian music drama The Sapphires and does so with flying colors. The film charmed a crowd at last year’s Lone Star International Film Festival before netting a slew of awards in its own country, and it’s now playing in Dallas.
The movie is based on a true story and co-written by Tony Briggs, the son of one of the real-life Sapphires. The story begins with Aboriginal sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who travel around to bingo halls and bars in the Australian outback in the late 1960s, playing country music hits. They catch the attention of Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd), a hard-drinking Irish emcee with an eye for musical talent. With U.S. troops in Vietnam looking for entertainment during their downtime — especially if said entertainment comes in the form of pretty girls who sing — the R&B-loving Dave converts the sisters into a Motown cover band and starts booking gigs for them in Southeast Asia.
With varying degrees of success, the script parcels out enough plot to go around, with Cynthia carrying on a long-distance romance with a boy from her village (Eka Darville) and the girls’ estranged sister Kay (Shari Sebbens), who’s being raised by a white family because she’s light-skinned, coming on board with the group. (Look up “the Stolen Generations” for more information about this chapter of Australian history — the movie won’t supply it.) Moreover, even as Dave falls in love with Gail, the eldest sister and ringleader, he has to convince her to step aside as the group’s lead singer in favor of Julie.
Helming his first feature film, director Wayne Blair (like Briggs, an Aborigine) wrangles this wide-ranging tale into a tidy package, and he plays this material like a man who knows that he’s holding a couple of trump cards. One of these is Mauboy’s keening dynamo of a voice, and any objections you might have to the drama’s sentimental excesses are blown away when she wails soulfully on “Who’s Loving You” or brings a firecracker burst to “What a Man.”
When the music isn’t playing, it’s O’Dowd who grabs your attention. It’s somewhat perverse that the white man is the most interesting character in a movie about black women, but O’Dowd turns this self-loathing drunk into a compelling figure, locating Dave’s passion for R&B music (particularly in one terribly funny scene when he gets carried away while coaching the girls about soul) and the desperation of a dead-end case clutching at a last chance to make something of himself. It’s this that gives The Sapphires some of the same bittersweet goodness of its Motown songs.
Starring Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, and Jessica Mauboy. Directed by Wayne Blair. Written by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson. Rated PG-13. Now playing in Dallas.