Directed by Wayne Blair and based on a true story, The Sapphires is a charming Australian film about a talented Aboriginal girl group, the Cummeraganja Songbirds. Feisty sisters Gail, Cynthia and Julie are spotted at a local talent contest by Dave Lovelace, a chaotic, drunken Irishman whose only passion beyond the bottle is soul music. “I may be Irish”, he slurs, “but deep down I’m a 1soul brother'”. After a tense reunion with estranged cousin, Kay, the girls successfully audition for a gig in Vietnam and rename themselves “The Sapphires”. They are soon en route to Vietnam to entertain the American troops, with Dave in tow as their manager.
Tony Briggs has collaborated with Keith Thompson to adapt his 2004 stage play into a warm, funny portrayal of youthful exuberance and difficult choices, underpinned by love for family, heritage and, above all, music. The film, beautifully shot by Wharton Thompson, begins in 1958, with sweeping scenes of the Australian Outback, presented in a way that is evocative of the Technicolor cinematography – blue sky, acres of yellow flowers, dusty red trucks, and four little girls in their Sunday-best frocks, performing a native song at an impromptu concert. The action quickly skips to 1968 and vintage footage recalls key events of the 1960s: the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King, civil unrest, and war in Vietnam. These issues form the backdrop of what could be a predictable rise-to-fame narrative in the vein of Alan Parker’s The Commitments (1991).However, the film is saved from cliché by charismatic performances from the entire cast.
Chris O’Dowd turns in a convincing performance as Lovelace, the disillusioned, whisky-soaked, but ultimately kind-hearted musician. Bossy, motherly Gail (Deborah Mailman), the eldest sister, is a perfect foil for Lovelace’s befuddled, unreliable character. Cynthia, played with great relish by Miranda Tapsell, is loud, argumentative and struggling to come to terms with her new-found freedom and unprecedented male attention. Australian X-Factor runner-up winner Jessica Mauboy is Julie, the “baby” sister with a baby of her own, desperate to cash in on her fabulous singing talents to escape a life of drudgery. Shari Sebbens plays cousin Kay with quiet sensitivity. It is through her strained relationship with the other girls that the film’s main themes of racism in both Australia and America are played out, for Kay is, as she puts it, “pale black”, a person forced to choose between two cultures.
Inevitably, films about women, or which are targeted at a female audience, tend to draw stereotypical adjectives such as “sweet”, “sentimental”, “likeable” and “feelgood” from male reviewers. One newspaper even labelled the film as a “sweet ‘n’ dumb feelgood bopper”, which does it a great disservice. The Sapphires proves that important meanings can be transmitted with great subtlety and heart. It is easy to view this film as a simple “local girls make good” tale with a vibrant Motown soundtrack, but its understatement does not mean that it shies away from the major issues of its period setting. The fact that the danger of war and the shame of cultural racism are witnessed from the perspective of young, high-spirited girls, does not make it any less chilling. It is a film which allows its female leads to have their say. The Sapphires do not undergo some glossy, Hollywood-style rise to fame and fortune which dissolves their problems and gives them a happy ending. When the girls pack away their spangly dresses and white boots, they are still the Cummeraganja Songbirds underneath.The Sapphires is a good-humoured, uplifting film; it is well-written with some great one-liners and some genuinely moving moments. Despite a lukewarm critical reception, it has found its way into the hearts of the viewing public, and is well worth a look.