The Saphires

Art & Culture

I really wanted to like this film; I really really did. And I almost managed to. It has lots of good things about it, and its heart is in the right place, but it goes on too long, and has a poor script which is badly directed. You'll probably love it anyway.

Australia 1968. About 20 years behind the rest of the world in terms of attitudes, especially to their indigenous population. At a talent contest in a small town, three aboriginal girls sing a Merle Haggard song with passion and conviction. They can really sing, unlike the rest of the white participants. Do they win? Do they hell? But they do acquire a manager in the shape of Dave (Chris O'Dowd), a washed-up Irishman with a drinking problem, who knows talent when he sees it, and helps them get an audition in Melbourne to go and sing for the American troops in Vietnam, on one condition. They have to dump the whiny country and western shite they love so much, and start singing soul music. Because, despite being white, he's a Soul Man.
This initial section of the film is the one that works best. We meet the families of the girls (three becomes four for reasons too complicated to explain) and watch them being made over into a Motown-like quartet. The issue of racism is included, in a way that makes sense without becoming too big an issue. And then the five of them head for Saigon, and that's where the trouble starts.
Simplicity is the key to success. Do one thing well, and you're fine. Do five things less well, and you have a mess. So; there's not one but several love stories. Each of the girls has a boyfriend, past present or future. Except for Gail, the motormouth alpha female of the group, who clashes constantly with Dave over who's the top dog. Anyone versed in the way of romcoms, will know that this is merely a preamble to romance, though it never convinced me for one minute. The number of men who seem to like the women is a problem, because they are – apart from Dave – essentially peripheral, so we never really have a sense of who they are or why we should care about them, so we don't.
Next, there's the music. Now this could be said to be the most important part of the film, and most of the time, it is the most successful. The four singers sound great, and this is certainly the best soul film since The Commitments, although the comparison does no favours to this film. Finally, there is politics. Now I admire the fact that the writer and director have decided to tackle the fact that these women are black and aboriginal, and that they go to Vietnam, and that 1968 is a time of political crisis, that Martin Luther King was shot, that soldiers in Vietnam were unhappy about being there – but whoa, this is too much for one film.Take all this baggage together, throw in the romances, the songs, the family issues, the conflicts within the group, and the boat is about to sink.
As a result we have a number of scenes that make little narrative sense, as we jump from one location to another, with manufactured  conflicts threatening to derail the dream of success, wounded soldiers lying around in hospital beds, confusion with a promoter back in Saigon, and most bizarrely, one of the singers speaking Vietnamese to a Vietcong band that holds them up on the road. Without explaining how or why she manages to do this. Furthermore, director Wayne Blair, making his feature debut, has no idea of how to edit. Each scene opens and closes with arbitrary suddenness, so that there is no sense of flow or continuity. This is not a fatal flaw, because the cheerful nature of the film just about keeps it  afloat, but it certainly reduces what might have been an excellent film into a barely average one.
I'm pretty sure that audiences will take it to their heart and overlook the kind of things I'm complaining about, and good luck to the film. I think Chris O'Dowd is terrific, as are the four women. The backbone of the story is strong, and the songs sound great. I just wish it had learned the hardest lesson in films as in life – Less Is More.

Phil Raby

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