"The Sapphires" possesses a real power, call it passion if you will, that radiates out of every frame in Wayne Blair's energizing, nostalgia-stuffed Vietnam-era musical drama.
It reminds me of the rawness and directness of the muscular Australian movies from the late 1970s and 1980s: "Mad Max," "Breaker Morant," "Gallipoli," "The Man From Snowy River," even "Crocodile Dundee."
"The Sapphires"★ ★ ★ ½
Starring: Jessica Mauboy, Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Directed by: Wayne Blair
Other: A Weinstein Company release. Exclusively at the Century Centre in Chicago. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations, violence, smoking. 99 minutes
This movie covers many subjects -- the importance of family, belief in your own worth, the value of working together -- but it always, always, comes back to racism.
Just when you think the Sapphires (think of them as an Australian "Supremes") have arrived, hit the big time and proved themselves, somebody white shouts racist slurs, tells them to go back where they belong, and other less genteel forms of abusive behavior.
Blair's movie, based on Aboriginal writer Tony Brigg's fact-inspired stage play, begins with a brief history of how the Australian government through the 1970s condoned forcibly removing aboriginal children -- especially light-skinned children -- from their families and placing them with white families as servants or lucky kids "saved" from their lot in life.
In retrospect, this odd intro was perfect for "The Sapphires." No matter how successful the singers become, being black and aboriginal trumps everything, at least for a segment of their country.
(Check out Phillip Noyce's superb 2002 drama "Rabbit-Proof Fence" for a more focused look at Australia's "stolen generations.")
We witness racism early in "The Sapphires" when aboriginal singing sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and much younger Julie ("Australian Idol" winner Jessica Mauboy) wax the white competition at a local talent show. Racist judges dismiss them.
There they meet caustic talent show host Dave ("Bridesmaids" star Chris O'Dowd), a white keyboard player who would rather visit Hades than remain here.
Gail, the motherly protector of the siblings, wants to get out of her small town. So does her attractive cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who has been trying to pass for a white, and has separated herself from Gail's family for years.
A newspaper ad for auditions might just be the ticket. The sisters plead for Kay to join them. She does.
Dave, a failed professional musician, agrees to be their manager and to train them for the auditions.
First, they have to change their group's name, the Cummeraganja Songbirds, to something more elegant and pronounceable.
It works. The job they land takes them to Saigon.
In Vietnam. In 1968.
Silver-tongued Dave persuades the sisters' mother that underage Julie -- the one with the powder keg voice -- will be perfectly safe under his guidance in a raging war zone half a world away.
Granted, watching "The Sapphires" requires winking at the details. The rewards are many if you can do it.
The Vietnam segment reeks with authenticity, as if production designer Melinda Doring used a time machine to transport the cast back to this historic place and time.
Against this wartime backdrop, the sisters endure sibling rivalry, disagreements and men. A backup drummer breaks Cynthia's heart. Kay has a fling with an accident-prone helicopter pilot. Julie's unfinished romantic business back home (and a baby) hinders new relationships.
Only Dave and Gail's emerging romance gains much traction here, because their bold and goofy pairing (neither would be considered classic Hollywood leading stars) sparks with palpable chemistry.
The vintage soul and rock numbers, executed with vervy panache by the quartet, lets Mauboy take center stage with her 50-caliber pipes.
She's the cherry bomb on the musical icing atop Blair's extremely appealing cinematic cake.