Australian import “The Sapphires” promises no big Hollywood-style stars and no innovative cinematography or film tricks, but it still shines like a gem. Playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, this heart-warming musical comedy offers a memorable story based on real Down Under events
The year is tumultuous 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the U.S. was mired in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive; but in Australia, aboriginals finally won the right to vote.
Starting out in the Australian outback, “The Sapphires” tells the story of four young aboriginal women who set out to make it big as singers. The viewer first meets three of them at their parents’ homestead, where they are making plans to enter a local talent contest. Julie, the youngest but already a teenaged mother, is ordered by her parents to stay home — not that she does. Julie has a knack for running off to do as she pleases. Played by “Australian Idol” alumna and platinum recording star Jessica Mauboy, she also has the killer voice in the group.
The white-run contest’s racist judges ignore the spunky girls’ obvious talent, but the contest’s piano-playing Irish emcee, Dave, played with boozer charm by Chris O’Dowd (the cop in “Bridesmaids” who also appears on HBO’s “Girls,” among many other roles), does not. In the blink of an eye, the girls hook up with Dave, who persuades them to dump their Merle Haggard country-and-western sad songs for Motown’s more upbeat soul music. They talk their parents into letting them head to Melbourne under Dave’s tutelage for a big-time tryout.
There the three girls add cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was abducted as a child by a government that took white-looking aboriginals from their families in a forced adoption program lasting into the 70s. Kay puts aside her identity conflicts to fill out the quartet. The next stop in their stairway to stardom takes them to Vietnam for a tour entertaining American troops.
Plenty of singing by the girl group, rebranded from the Cummeragunja Songbirds to The Sapphires, leavens what could have turned into a gloomy rerun about 60s racism and a dangerous war environment.
Tony Briggs, son of the real-life quartet’s lead singer, wrote the screenplay for “The Sapphires” with Keith Thompson. Directed by Wayne Blair, the movie won 11 awards from the Australian Film Institute. If the narrative grows a little threadbare and clichéd, “The Sapphires” still works because of the group’s powerful singing and their determination to prevail over daunting odds. Transferring painful American issues like racism and Vietnam to an Australian context changes the chemistry from acid-tinged gloom to bubbly uplift.
“The Sapphires,” Thursday, May 2, Friday, May 3, Saturday, May 4, and Sunday, May 5, 7:30 pm.
“From up on Poppy Hill,” Friday, May 3, and Sunday, May 5, 4 pm.
“A Place at the Table,” Saturday, May 4, 5 pm, followed by a discussion with members of the Vineyard Committee on Hunger.