Precipitating this article was someone saying The Sapphires was better suited to TV, a made-for-Sunday-evening type of flick. That got me thinking. Unintentionally, this year my festival screenings were book ended with The Sapphires and Musical Chairs; I began and ended on a musically uplifting, feel-good high.
With a richly developed script combining historical realities, great soul music and characters who capture our hearts, The Sapphires is wonderfully entertaining, and informative. Growing up singing gospel with their mom, and for their remote mission community, these girls know in their hearts they are good. So when a local talent contest is announced, they decide this is also their year. It is 1968: indigenous Australians have been given the right to vote, and hippies, drugs, assassinations, and Vietnam have impacted global thinking. Meeting Dave cum talent scout offsets their consternation at the local contest’s outcome. Dave (Chris O\'Dowd) may not be rhythmically astute, and he may like his drink and have a skeleton in the closet, but his heart is huge, and, he recognizes their talent. Julie initiates a job offer, but Gail’s challenging attitude forces his hand; one call to an old friend and Dave lands them an audition in Melbourne.
Counterbalancing concerns from the tight-knit family, Dave’s next gigantic hurdle is to shake up the lineup, and their country and western repertoire. Gail (Deborah Mailman) as the oldest has been singing lead, with backing from Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Kay (Shari Sebbens). Once that is accomplished, as a “soul” man, Dave immerses them in visual and audio stimuli—“sing blacker;” their audition concludes with, “See you in Saigon.” Kay spontaneously comes up with their name: The aborigine Songbirds have metamorphosed into The Sapphires, Australia’s “Supremes.” With youthful energy they embrace Vietnam’s grueling, twenty-seven shows in twenty-three days schedule entertaining US troops. The journey generates individual inner-growth, coming to terms with personal and familial issues and fears, friendship, and love. Based on a true story, Tony Briggs—son of a real-life Sapphire—shares writing credits with Keith Thompson, and Wayne Blair directs this celebration to personal motivation, perseverance, and life.
Humor and pathos, great music, an endearing cast, and a narrative richly portraying the power of family, friendship, and love in its many forms, merge into this what’s-not-to-like film that sends audiences dancing out of the theater, and perhaps, into dance studios for classes. Armando (E.J. Bonilla) daydreams about dancing professionally and with the resident star Mia (Leah Pipes), while working at a midtown Manhattan dance studio. He helps out at the family’s successful Puerto Rican Bronx restaurant, resisting his mother’s attempts to control his life. Isabel (Priscilla Lopez) is not to be dissuaded: she prays, and sprays love potions on Armando, and her mate-choice Rosa (Angelic Zambrana). Fate intervenes: Mia is hospitalized after a tragic accident; Armando steadfastly visits, charming the staff—“Erma (Capathia Jenkins), you’re so b-a-d.” Employing imagination and determination, Armando concocts a plausible ploy for motivating Mia.
Erma willing helps, but insists Armando involve more patients: Anything for a break in the routine induces Chantelle (Laverne Cox) and Nicky (Auti Angel), whereas Kenny (Morgan Spector) just wants to be with a regular chick. Then Armando learns about the first-ever wheelchair ballroom dance competition being held in New York City in six weeks. Over-the-hill Uncle Wilfredo (Nelson Landrieu) and hospital custodian Jimmy (Jerome Preston Bates) partner with the, a, ladies, while Kenny gets lucky getting Rosa. The heat is on, obstacles loom around every corner, and mama prays extra fervently. “Armando, you can’t have your dream all at once—where’s the fun in that … it’s the struggle you’ll miss the most,” Bernardo (Jaime Tirelli) imparts to his son. Musical Chairs, a testament to strength and courage, posit that physically challenged individuals who persevere will not end up wallflowers. Proof is in the product: Susan Seidelman insightfully directs Marty Madden’s empathetic script with a host of exceptional actors.
Both films are so musically invigorating that you cannot help but rock in your seat. Most noteworthy is that both films are an affirmation to the humanness within ordinary people in everyday situations, and how simple acts can have overwhelming, humbling consequences. I like the nail-biting who-dun-it films, sci-fi adventures, nitty-gritty thrillers, and fantasy flicks, but, I also like leaving a theater feelin’ good all over.