“The Sapphires,” at the Milwaukee Film Festival
Milwaukee Film Festival Spotlight Presentation film "The Sapphires" features a great '60s soul soundtrack and does so with its heart in the right place.
When I first saw that there was a film about girl groups playing at the festival I couldn’t believe my luck. I have been sweet on girl groups ever since I heard the Shangri-Las in Goodfellas, but when I noticed The Sapphires was set in 1960’s Vietnam, I got a little apprehensive. I worried the mindless teenage fun of early girl groups would be bogged down by another rehash of the horrors of war or the politics of Vietnam. That would destroy my sentimental image of this music that I cherish so much, and I wasn’t ready for that. The simplicity and naiveté are the best part.
The film follows a familiar arc that is most often seen in sports movies. We meet the girls during their humble beginnings, watch as they get whipped into shape by their coach, and follow them to their final glorious victory. Rather than winning a trophy, the girls are awarded with a deeper bond between them and a better sense of themselves.
This all sounds very corny, and the film does have a handful of cornball moments, but these complaints are easily shrugged off in lieu of the fact that this movie is just so gosh-darn fun.
The fun begins in 1968 when three singing sisters meet a heavy boozing MC named Dave Loveless (played by Chris O’Dowd). After hearing a rinky-dink rendition of a country standard, he immediately has Phil Spector-like aspirations for the girls. Not a moment later a newspaper ad appears that promises $30 a day for performing musical acts. All they have to do is go to Vietnam.
Things really get humming when the girls are matched up with a funky brass band overseas. Here, the soundtrack shines, as the girls cover a bunch of great soul tunes from the late 60’s.
Australian Idol’s 2006 runner-up Jessica Mauboy sings lead (but only after a quick butting-of-the-heads with her mother goose older sister) and absolutely nails it on covers of Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Sam & Dave, and other soul legends. I am more of a Ronettes kinda guy, but this girl could sing Barbra Streisand and I would still be into it.
Through these booty-shaking performances The Sapphires find a captivated audience and start playing bigger and bigger venues around Vietnam. They meet a few love interests along the way (a girl group essential), which allows for plenty of fun girl talk moments.
Tragedy eventually strikes, but this isn’t the sort of film that can end on a sour note—by the time the credits rolled I was beaming. Sure, the film is glossy and overly sentimental at times, but its heart is in the right place.