Aboriginal musical ‘The Sapphires’ is a project O’Dowd sought

CANNES, France — After the success of “Bridesmaids,” actor Chris O'Dowd was mostly getting scripts for mediocre romantic comedies — “bad versions of ‘Bridesmaids,’ ” he said.

“I figured I should go and do something very different, otherwise I’ll kind of get stuck,” Mr. O'Dowd said in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival. “So an Aboriginal musical made sense.”

And that could well be the first time such a sentence has been uttered. In the genre of Aboriginal musicals there is but one entry: “The Sapphires,” which premiered in Cannes to a lengthy standing ovation and eager debate over whether it was this year’s out-of-left-field success story at the festival.

The film, directed by Wayne Blair (an Australian actor making his directorial debut), is about four lively black women, three sisters and a cousin (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell), who set off from the Australian countryside to sing at a talent contest, and end up on a tour performing for U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

It’s 1968 and the backdrop isn’t just Vietnam, but the struggle for indigenous Australians for equal treatment in a society that often treated them like second-class citizens. Mr. O'Dowd plays their hard-drinking Irish manager, Dave Lovelace.

“It’s a weird one, isn’t it?” Mr. Blair said. “It’s a 1968 period film. You have choreography, you have musical, four Aboriginal women, add an ignorant Irish alcoholic. Then you’re taking them from Victoria to Melbourne to Vietnam and bringing them back home. Like, hello?”

But though “The Sapphires” includes scenes of war and racism, it’s exceptionally buoyant in tone — a funnier, scrappier “Dreamgirls,” by way of Australia. Lovelace turns the girls away from country music and toward soul. The soundtrack is a tour of Motown staples, from “Who’s Lovin’ You” to “Soul Sister, Brown Sugar.” The music and the political environment in many ways mirror the American civil rights movement, which is frequently glimpsed in news footage.

“It felt like the one thing that could unhinge the whole thing is if it felt forced,” Mr. O'Dowd said. “Then it kind of doesn’t matter if it’s funny or if it’s dramatic, as long as you believe all of it.”

The Weinstein Co. acquired the film ahead of Cannes. After its premiere, Harvey Weinstein was quoted by a Los Angeles Times reporter saying: “Have you seen ‘The Sapphires’? ‘The Artist’ just happened again.”

Mr. Weinstein, who last year acquired the Oscar-winning “The Artist” at Cannes, has since backed away from that comparison, but the company is releasing the film this fall.

Mr. Blair and Mr. O'Dowd, while both grateful for the Cannes release, sought to temper too much hype for the film.

“As my dad says: One minute the rooster, the next minute the feather duster,” Mr. Blair said. Mr. O'Dowd admitted it’s “kind of terrifying” that a film he made that expected not to even make it to America is so talked-about at Cannes.

The film, written by Tony Briggs (with Keith Thompson), is inspired by a true story. Mr. Briggs’ mother was one of the Sapphires, a story he first turned into a play.

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