THE SAPPHIRES (Wayne Blair). 99 minutes. Opens Friday (April 5). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNN
Based on the true story of a quartet of Aboriginal cousins who entertained U.S. troops in Vietnam as a soul act, The Sapphires is Australia's bid to remake The Commitments - and U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein's bid for a lively audience-friendly art house hit. It's Good Morning, Vietnam with actual singing instead of a DJ making jokes and spinning records.
Not to say that this calculated button-pusher isn't entertaining, or that Chris O'Dowd doesn't give a fine performance as the floundering expat who becomes the girls' manager and strikes romantic sparks with their most ambitious member (Deborah Mailman). It's an unimpeachably professional production, and the arrangements of the musical numbers are upbeat and appealing.
But the screenplay, by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson, is driven entirely by obvious moral and emotional conflicts designed to be resolved with a minimum of fuss, and director Wayne Blair struggles to reconcile the heavier political themes with his film's sprightly tone. (The attempts to parallel Australian racial issues with America's civil rights upheaval come off as particularly tin-eared.)
I would have loved to see a movie that actually digs into the familial tensions created by the fact that one of the cousins (Shari Sebbens) is light-skinned and able to pass for white, instead of just raising the issue for easy dramatic points. But that might have meant cutting a song.