[Monkey See will be at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) through the middle of next week. We'll be bringing you our takes on films both large and small, from people both well-known and not.]
Film festival fare can be thrilling and moving and challenging and gorgeous, but here's the thing: it can also be dark and depressing. There's nothing more welcome, then, than a very good film that also happens to incorporate a lot of soul music and dancing, and The Sapphires is that very good film.
Initially, the story (based on a real group of girls) seems simple: three sisters from an aboriginal family in Australia in the late 1960s have a little singing group, and they sing Merle Haggard songs at talent shows where they're turned away because they're black. They meet a scraggly Irish keyboard player named Dave (Chris O'Dowd) who becomes their manager and takes them to Vietnam to play for the American troops — which means less country music and more soul.
But there's a lot going on here besides a lot of good music. The girls pick up their cousin Kay along the way, because she sang with them when they were kids, but they haven't seen her since she was removed by the government and relocated to live with a white family. (You can start here if you want to find sources and read about this practice, which really existed.) Tensions remain high even years later, particularly between Kay and Gail (Deborah Mailman), the oldest sister and the protector of the others.
The Sapphires is a slight little slip of a thing in some respects. It is a feel-good movie (up to a point), there is upbeat music, there is dancing, there is push-pull banter between Gail and Dave. But there is, of course, the Vietnam War. There is, of course, racism that confronts the girls just about everywhere they go.
At certain moments, the film feels pretty manipulative, but you know why manipulation is popular? Because it is effective. Everywhere the white-booted, spangly-dressed girl group took me, I wanted to go, and while this is hardly the most innovative piece of filmmaking I'll see this week, it's one I'm guessing a lot of people will dearly love. To be honest, you could put Chris O'Dowd (the cute cop in Bridesmaids) in almost anything, and I'd probably line up for it, and so would a fair number of other people.
The Sapphires doesn't have an announced U.S. release date yet, but it's been grabbed up by The Weinstein Company, so you shouldn't have trouble finding it at some point.