An Aboriginal girl group go to Vietnam in The Sapphires, an engaging comedy-drama with music in British cinemas now.
1968, Australia. Gail (Deborah Mailman) and her sisters Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) perform together singing country and western songs. They enter a local talent contest and are spotted by Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a displaced Irishman with a drink problem but a love of music. He persuades the sisters to abandon the country music and sing more soul. With their cousin Kay (Shari Stebbens) and renamed The Sapphires, the foursome with Dave as their manager get a gig performing for the American troops in Vietnam.
The Sapphires begins with a short prologue set in 1958 showing Gail, Julie, Kay and Cynthia singing together as children on a stage. But this is deceptive, and we see the full significance of the scene when we return to it an hour in. On the surface, The Sapphires is standard upbeat fare that pushes quite a few of the right buttons: a period setting, female solidarity, romance and a lot of music on the soundtrack. But there’s more to it than that. The story began as a stage play by Tony Briggs, a fictionalised version of the experiences of his mother and her sisters and cousins. (You can see pictures of the real-life analogues to the characters during the end credits.) The screenplay adaptation is by Briggs and Keith Thompson. Quite a few recent Australian films deal with the subject of racism particularly with regard to the country’s Aboriginal population (see for example Samson & Delilah, directed by the DP of The Sapphires, Warwick Thornton, also Rabbit-Proof Fence). The Sapphires deals with this, and particular episodes such as that of the “Stolen Children” of the 1950s. The scriptwriters and director Wayne Blair (an Aboriginal) are acting as “smugglers” in the Martin Scorsese sense of the word: taking such dark material and some edgy angles, and some very much Aussie-specific subject matter, and embedding them in feelgood PG-rated family entertainment that plays in multiplexes worldwide.
Gail may be the oldest sister, played by the most experienced screen actress of the four (who, to be ungallant about it, is a little too old for the role – there are seventeen years between Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy), but much of the film’s attention is on Kay (Shari Stebbens, in her first feature). Fair-skinned enough to pass as a “gubba” (white) after having been “stolen” as a child, she’s at first embarrassed when her cousins turn up unannounced while she’s hosting a Tupperware party, but during the course of the film she comes to embrace her Aboriginal heritage. Mailman doesn’t always play Gail for easy sympathy, particularly when she gets supplanted as lead singer in favour of Julie, who has a better singing voice. Chris O’Dowd overdoes the drunk act at the beginning, but he’s an engaging presence and the chemistry between Dave and Gail is such that their eventual romance is well earned. Jessica Mauboy (whose only previous film was another Aboriginal-themed musical directed by an indigenous filmmaker, Bran Nue Dae) indeed has a strong singing voice but one flaw of the film is that Julie and Cynthia (this is also Miranda Tapsell’s bigscreen debut) are much less underdeveloped as characters as Gail and Kay are.
Thornton’s Scope photography is good and period detail and sense of place – with location shooting in Vietnam – are fine, even if some of the songs are anachronistic. (You can forgive Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” at the beginning as it’s non-diegetic, but The Sapphires manage to perform “I’ll Take You There” two years before it was written.) Quite how Kay became fluent in what I take to be Vietnamese (she says “I speak your language with your permission”) in one key scene is not explained. The film does flirt with tragedy towards the end, but that’s one punch it does pull. But ultimately this doesn’t matter very much. There may be flaws and rough edges but this is a film that’s hard to dislike.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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