The Sapphires (PG)
Hugely entertaining and loosely accurate history of an Aboriginal girl band set in the 1960’s. This soul band sparkles against glorious sunshine in Australia and the grey skies of Vietnam.
“On music, identity and race, the film has a big beating heart in the right place”.
Peter Bradshaw – The Guardian.
Wayne Blair | Australia | 2012 | 98 mins | PG
The late Sir Richard Attenborough believed that because film is such a powerful medium for social change, directors have a positive duty to point to social injustice, without losing sight of the need to entertain their audiences. Wayne Blair does just this in “The Sapphires”. The film is both charming and politically provocative, sometimes clumsily, but also in ways that are not immediately apparent.
“The Sapphires” tells the story of the Cummeragunja Songbirds. A talent scout, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) discovers this Country and Western girl band, leads it to soul music and to Saigon to entertain the troops in 1968. The Songbirds become the Sapphires, and add a cousin to their number.
This film is based on a 2004 musical written by former “Neighbours” star, Tony Briggs. Its soundtrack is compelling and is largely based on numbers from the Motown, Stax and Atlantic soul songbooks. Look out for the infectious “Land of a thousand dancers”, “I can’t help myself”, “I heard it through the grapevine” and “What a man”. Jessica Mauboy (Julie), Miranda Tapsell (Cynthia), Shari Sebbens (Kay) and Deborah Mailman (Gail) are the band in the film. They sing with great presence, are gorgeous in spangles, naïve and likeable. Jessica in particular has a great voice. The additional vocalists are terrific and include Jade MacRae, Lou Bennet and Juanita Tippens. The soundtrack was certified double platinum in Australia.
The story line is conventional; its real interest lies in its context. The issues are opposition to the Vietnam War, Aboriginal land and human rights; particularly the enforced adoption of indigenous children by whites and colour prejudice. These were dealt with lightly, in Sebben’s words, “…in a really joyous and celebratory way…[that]…doesn’t make anyone feel targeted or guilty”. The themes are familiar, the adoptions particularly so after the 2008 Australian official apology for them. What is not apparent, or touched upon, is the continuing removal of Aborigine children from their families, and the continuing abuse and bullying, as described in Pilger’s documentary, “Utopia”. Peter Bradshaw wrote, “The veteran investigator has an extraordinary story to tell about white Australia and its deeply dysfunctional relationship with the indigenous Australian community….so far from being a closed chapter, is merely a prelude: it is set to get worse.” (Guardian Nov. 14th 2103).
The film was based loosely on a true story. Brigg’s mother was one of the original Sapphires. She went to Vietnam to sing for G.I.s. Her mother’s sisters were all forcibly adopted. One committed suicide by taking rat poison.
The actor to watch is Chris O’Dowd, not just in this film, but in McDonagh’s “Calvary” later this Season. He is dependably hilarious, has impeccable timing and an acute sense of the ridiculous. Lovelace is a minor character, but is the star, with lines such as, “Can you do it blacker?” as he watches the girls perform. He was cast after the director saw him in “Bridesmaids’’, which involved changing the script to enable the manager to be Irish rather than English.
The Cannes Film Festival audience gave “The Sapphires” a standing ovation for ten minutes. Film producer Harvey Weinstein bought it after the festival and it is the highest grossing Australian film in its opening weekend. The Australian Recording Industry certified the soundtrack as double platinum.
Weighted vote 90.2%