Feelgood Aussie musical 'The Sapphires' brightens Cannes

Posted by · 8:30 am · May 21st, 2012

You have to feel for any film appearing under The Weintein Company’s banner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. After last year, when The House That Harvey Built picked up “The Artist” — and, in doing so, made the wisest long-term purchase of the festival — everything else they touch is going to be scrutinized for similar potential to Michel Hazanavicius’s improbable Oscar sensation.

Saturday, then, was a big day for the company, as they presented two of their Cannes babies to the world. But while their widely publicized, star-studded Competition entry “Lawless” made a respectable debut, reaping much critical goodwill if few outright raves, it was a far lower-profile, more recent acquisition, premiering safely out of competition, that set the Croisette whispering. That film would be “The Sapphires”: a modest, good-natured musical comedy from Down Under, spinning the semi-true tale of an all-Aboriginal, Supremes-style girl group and their adventures entertaining US troops in Vietnam.

It unusually premiered the night before its press screening at Cannes — a canny bit of scheduling for a lightweight populist entertainment that, unlike the more delicate auteurist hopefuls in the Competition scrum, shouldn’t be dependent on high-end critical approval for its success. Not that being made to wait didn’t get many journos curious. Having been assigned to review the film for Variety, I was lucky enough to get into the late-night penguin-suit premiere: as I strolled home in the unseasonal Cannes drizzle, I ran into several colleagues with questions: “Ooh, what’s it like?” “Is it a hit?” “So, have we found this year’s ‘The Artist?'”

The last question, in particular, stemmed from the Chinese-whispers rumor mill of Twitter, upon which Harvey Weinstein was quoted as having said that, indeed, Wayne Blair’s dayglo, 1960s-set crowdpleaser was this year’s answer to the silent French phenomenon — an overly pressure-inducing claim under any circumstances, not least for a supremely affable but hokey confection with no bigger names attached than “Bridesmaids” breakout Chris O’Dowd. Whether Weinstein actually made the comparison or not, the correction/retraction was swift: “No, it’s not ‘The Artist,'” came the quote this time from the Cannes party-circuit grapevine. “But it’s a lot of fun.”

On that, almost everyone who has seen it thus far can agree: colorful, packed with a jukebox’s worth of infectious soul-standard covers and blessed with dynamite work from O’Dowd in his first major lead role as the girls’ boozy Irish manager, “The Sapphires” is little else but fun, a commodity always in short supply in the largely solemn Cannes lineup. Standing ovations are par for the course at official festival premieres, but the elated whoops echoing around the cavernous Grand Theatre Lumiere as the credits began rolling, coupled with the jack-in-the-box speed with which the audience leapt to its collective feet, made it clear that people like this movie, they really like this movie.

Whether that overwhelming good feeling can be parlayed into awards-season attention or not is really a secondary concern (that said, go ahead and pencil in a Golden Globe musical/comedy nod right now). The Weinsteins have far larger audiences to please than Academy voters, and with the right marketing, they could easily turn this exotic novelty into a word-of-mouth crossover hit that starts on the sunnier end of the arthouse and builds from there, ticking a lot of demographic boxes along the way. (It’s the kind of film you could just as easily see with a date or a grandparent.) 

It’s hard to imagine any critics genuflecting, but the Cannes response so far suggests nobody wants to kick this particular puppy either. I’m not able to review it twice, but with the caveat in place that quoting oneself is unbecoming, here’s the first paragraph of my Variety review:

“Ninety percent of all recorded music is shite,” opines Chris O’Dowd’s feckless band manager in Australian helmer Wayne Blair’s spirited debut feature, “The Sapphires.” “The other 10% is soul.” Soul music’s alleged redemptive powers are fully at work in this jumbled, sketchily written but vastly appealing true-life musical comedy. Closer to “The Commitments” than “Dreamgirls” with its broad Down Under humor, the colorful pic counts on sensational song-and-dance numbers and O’Dowd’s virtuoso comic turn to carry it through some bumpy key changes. Home-turf success is assured, while the Weinstein Co. has every reason to smell an international crowdpleaser.

The rest is here, while our HitFix colleague Drew McWeeny has voiced a similar opinion on Twitter. “The Sapphires” may well be the most commercially viable film I’ve seen at Cannes — and if it succeeds in making a leading man of Chris O’Dowd, then the Weinsteins have once more made a very useful purchase indeed. Keep an eye out.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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