Some diversions invite comparison more readily than others. Take
Already, many have seen it and liked it. If you enjoyed "Strictly Ballroom" or "The Commitments," which is to say if you fell for the slightly pushy charms of those show business fables (one fantasy Australian, the other Irish, though directed by an Englishman), then chances are you'll go for this true-ish story of an Aborigine singing group entertaining the American troops, enemy fire be damned, in 1968 — like
"The Sapphires" began as a stage play in Melbourne,
The director, Wayne Blair, makes his feature film debut with "The Sapphires," and with the casting of
Once these three hit the stage, Dave hears the sound of potential money, and one audition later they're off for Vietnam, along with the fourth member of The Sapphires. She is Kay (Shari Sebbens), the sisters' lighter-skinned sibling who was kidnapped as a child to be raised and educated with so-called white ways.
On tour behind enemy lines, there are affairs with soldiers to juggle, while Dave gradually realizes he's in love with Gail, the mother hen of the group. His declaration of love in "The Sapphires" is interrupted by mortar fire, which sends the film briefly into more dire territory. Then we're back to the Motown, Stax and Atlantic label hits. (Initially The Sapphires favor country and western, but Dave is a soul man through and through.)
The soldiers we meet on the fly in "The Sapphires" are an astonishingly clean-cut and drug-free group, in keeping with the film's desire to placate rather than provoke. Now and then a character may note the oppression of blacks in the U.S. versus Australia, but only now and then.
The performers improve it, or save it, depending on your viewpoint. O'Dowd's uniquely wry charisma offsets the sincerity and sparkle of the leading ladies, all entertaining. The script is corny and cliched and goes the way you expect it to go. But those things never stopped any movie from working with an audience.
The real star is cinematographer Warwick Thornton, whose vibrant color palette sets the desired storybook mood. Thornton wrote and directed his own Australian film, "Samson and Delilah," whose toughness has little in common with this good-timey jukebox musical. Let's make a deal: If you see "The Sapphires," seek out "Samson and Delilah," too, sometime.