Taking on Aborigine rights in Sixties Australia, Wayne Blair’s debut feature The Sapphires is an all-singing, all-dancing feel-good sparkler.
Dreamgirls by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on a true story, and adapted from the hit Australian stage musical by Neighbours actor Tony Briggs, the son of one of the women, The Sapphires is an infectiously joyous film about friendship and raw musical talent triumphing over racial prejudice. It showcases not just the singing abilities of the four women, The Sapphires, but also Chris O’Dowd in a virtuoso characterisation that holds the whole thing together. Surely sealing his rise as an international star after Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd, O’Dowd is Dave, the boozy, wisecracking compere of a talent show in a seedy pub in the Australian outback, until he gets the sack for championing three talented singing Aborigine sisters who outshine by far all the white entrants, even though they’ve never sung in public before, but who are denied the prize by the red-neck punters – “Pack your swags and get back to the humpy”, they’re told.
A failed cruise ship entertainments manager stuck in the middle of nowhere, despite the career-numbing booze, Dave is musically astute enough to recognise the girls’ potential and has enough drive – or maybe desperation – to appoint himself their mentor and manager. In one of the funniest scenes, through the force of his pure energy, he changes their mindset from singing dirgy Merle Haggard – “Black people singing country and western – it’s just wrong!” and enthuses them with his love of soul music, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. For him, country and western is for people whose lives go wrong and sit at home whining about it, but soul is for people who go out and fight and do something about it. That’s an underlying theme of the film – struggle and empowerment. And the girls do have inner strength and aren’t afraid to be confrontational – even having started their talent show act with the audience-alienating “Just so’s you know, you’re all standing on blackfella country!”
Looking for their big break, the girls see a newspaper ad and seize on the chance to go and audition in Melbourne for a job entertaining the troops in Vietnam – it’s 1968, as TV news footage reminds us. They have lost touch with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was the fourth member of the group in which they all harmonised together as children. She was taken away from their Aborigine settlement to be brought up as white – one of the ‘Stolen Generation’ – because she was fair-skinned, in line with the racial policy of the times. But in Melbourne they get in touch again, overcome old racial hurts, and persuade her to join them.
With only a week to rehearse for the audition, with Dave’s coaching they learn to sing with soul – “Can you make it sound blacker?” – and perform slick girl-group Supremes-style dance routines, while he helps each define distinct roles within the group – the singer, the dancer, the leader. Auditioning in front of grim-faced US Army personnel, they unexpectedly get their first professional singing contract: the majority of American troops in Vietnam were black, so black entertainers were needed. In Saigon, two terrifying things that they hadn’t considered in their haste to perform now quickly dawn on them: first, they’ve landed in the middle of a war zone, and, second, they actually have no professional experience and are thrown in at the deep end in their first gig in a nightclub for soldiers.
But this is a truly feel-good story, so they stop arguing, pull together, conquer their fear, do a great show and wow the troops. Thereafter travelling around the country to army bases in the jungle, they smarten up their stage act with some sparkly dresses, find danger (Julie faces down a Vietcong ambush by speaking to them in her indigenous Yorta Yorta language), love, courage, do a lot of growing up and find their own voices both on and off stage. Julie (Australian Idol winner Jessica Mauboy), the youngest, who has the best voice, is talent spotted for the States. Gail (Deborah Mailman, the first Aboriginal actress to win a Best Actress Award), the eldest, is a fierce mother bear looking after her cubs away from home, while unwilling to acknowledge a growing mutual attraction with Dave (though this is perhaps not too convincing). And Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) is the flighty one, who finds romance with an army medic.
When a remote base where they’re performing is bombed, while trying heroically to protect them, Dave is injured and left behind as the girls are helicoptered out. Believing him to be dead, Gail realises her love for him. On the news, Martin Luther King is shot, so the girls are even more needed now to calm the black troups, which they do, singing “I wonder why”. Eventually, Dave is found miraculously alive in hospital, and The Sapphires’ Vietnam adventure ends. Back home in Australia at the girls’ remote home compound, Dave is welcomed into the family, Julie is received back into her Aborigine heritage, and they all put on a show on the back of a truck, just as they used to in the days before they became famous.
Over the end credits, touchingly, we see the ‘girls’ as they are now, Australian women approaching retirement, looking back on their exploits with affection. One of the originals, Lois Peeler, now the principal of a college for Aboriginal women, described recently how frightening their Vietnam experience really was and how closely the film reflects that: “I hadn’t really given a great deal of thought to the fact that we were going into a war zone,” she said. “When we got off the plane in Saigon, moments later there was bombing at the airport.”
The Sapphires is a genuinely feel-good film that has grit as well as laughter, and some great music which packs enough emotional power to make the tears flow – in a good way. The Sixties soul music numbers are intrinsic to the plot, sensitive to events and complementing them, not just shoehorned in. The script, whilst having smart one-liners, isn’t afraid to tackle the racial prejudice of the time head on. Jessica Mauboy has an amazing soulful voice, which makes the group’s success convincing internally, and the ensemble acting gels well. Chris O’Dowd is a shambolic, hapless ball of energy that drives the film, his character, Dave, being an endearing mass of contradictions – humorous, sad, witty, touching, ambitious, disorganised – yet somehow always managing to get it right musically. Direction by Wayne Blair, who is of Aboriginal descent, with previous Australian TV series to his credit, moves the dreams-come-true story along at a cracking pace, topped and tailed by back story and present-day reality. He has admitted that indigenous stories which gain international recognition, as The Sapphires has done, can struggle to attract mainstream audiences at home. However, this film was a box-office hit in Australia.
The Sapphires is released on 7th November 2012 in the UK
This film is an Australian version of the “one drop” myth. The “light-skinned” character, Kay, is bullied (at one point literally beaten) into calling herself “black.”