The Sapphires: A Reel Gem!
By Sandra Olmsted
The Sapphires, director Wayne Blair’s debut feature, isn’t flawless, but, unlike the cursed Hope Diamond, The Sapphires brings only joy. Based on the true story of four Aboriginal girls with incredible singing voices, this ebullient film navigates Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens)’s rise above the race and gender discrimination of Australia and the 1960s.
Screenwriters Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, an Aboriginal actor-writer, adapts Briggs’ 2004 stage play, which is based the exhilarating story of his mother, Laurel Robinson, who was the lead singer of an all-Aboriginal female soul quartet which toured and entertained the troops in Vietnam during the late 1960s. Although Blair, Briggs, and Thompson seemingly gloss over the underbelly of discrimination the young women experience, the upbeat tone captures the anything-is-possible attitude of the young movement of the 1960s.
The film opens with the confusing and shocking scene of four tween girls, known as the Cummeraganja Songbirds, performing for their isolated mission when white officials swoop down and take several children, including the young Kay, away in black cars.
The story jumps forward to shortly after the 1967 referendum granted citizenship rights to Aborigines, and Gail, Cynthia, and Julie, who have grown into young women in the Outback, still sing beautifully. Dreaming of escape from their circumscribed lives, Gail and Cynthia enter a singing contest. Although racism prevents them from winning even though their rendition of a Merle Haggard tune clearly should, they meet Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a boozy Irishman and wannabe music promoter who has fallen on hard times.
Dave sees the Songbirds as his redemption, if he can repackage them, but he’ll have to convince the strong-willed, strong-minded Gail that changing their group’s name, costumes, and music and that including the younger Julie will make them stars. Singing Motown Blues and Soul instead of American country western tunes comes more natural than Gail thought it would, and soon they convince Dave to get them an audition for the USO Shows in Vietnam.
When they land the job they’ll have to convince Julie’s parents that she’s not too young and that Gail will watch over her. As they wait in Melbourne to leave for the tour, Gail, Cynthia, and Julie decide to look up Kay, who was stolen away from the mission because her fair skin made her a candidate for adoption by a white family. Unable to imagine taking this opportunity without her, the trio interrupts Kay’s new life, and soon the foursome and manager Dave are on the way to Vietnam.
With four young women, thousands of young men, and war-zone dangers, romance and drama can’t be avoided. As these young women explore the wider world and experience less discrimination, Blair focuses on the upbeat and not the downbeat, This strategy, which has drawn criticism for this film and his direction, but works because it captures the anything-is-possible counterculture attitudes of the youth worldwide in the late 1960s.
Blair has help in capturing the spirit of the age. Director of photography Warwick Thornton chose a groovy palette that includes saturated, nearly Day Glo, color for The Sapphires’ performances, and Costume designer Tess Schofield gives the young women hip, nostalgic wardrobes for their everyday wardrobes and sparkling, Supremes-esque gowns which accentuate Thornton’s color choices.
The soundtrack, which is a blast, includes The Sapphires belting out the songbooks of Marvin Gaye, Linda Lyndell, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Temptations, and The Four Tops plus a very moving rendition of a gospel song in their Aboriginal language. While the singing was favored over their characters’ development for all but Gail, the singing of Mailman, Tapsell, Mauboy and Sebbens make the film a joy to see and hear. Mailman and O’Dowd have perfect chemistry as the combative leaders of the band, but could Gail and Dave adversarial relationship have more simmering beneath the surface?
The Sapphires alludes to the social and cultural issues facing Aborigines without getting mired down in preaching, validating Blair’s choice to focus on the personal rather than the political. The Sapphires, which won Best Narrative Feature at the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2012 and many international and Australian awards, bounces and bubbles with Aussie good humor.
A Weinstein Company release of a Goalpost Pictures production, The Sapphires is rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking and runs 103 minutes. The Sapphires opens in limited release on April 5, but should go wide soon because it is so much fun.
More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinematicskinny.com.
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