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The Sapphires

This one had been sitting on my watch list for quite some time, but it kept getting pushed back by other, more interesting, more high-priority movies. I fully expected it to drop out of the Fox Tower before I could get to it. But strangely, despite virtually zero attention from mainstream audiences or online film geeks, it’s still showing at the Fox Tower and going as strong as ever. Several movies have come and gone in its wake, yet it still has showtimes going all day. Finally, when the film gained interest from some of my correspondents, I knew that I had to cave and see what this little oddity was.

The Sapphires is an Australian film that was based on a stage musical. Both come to us from writer Tony Briggs, whose mother was one of the four women who “inspired” this story. Yes, this film was “inspired by a true story” (emphasis mine).

Our stage is set in 1968 — a time known to Americans as the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement — right when the Aussies were having some racial tensions of their own. See, while black people in the States were fighting for equality, the native Aborigines were fighting simply to be recognized as people. Up until the late ’60s, the Aborigines were technically listed among “flora and fauna.” If you think that sounds bad, just keep reading. We’ll get back to it.

This movie is centered around a family of young Aboriginal women, with the core group comprised of three sisters. The oldest is Gail (Deborah Mailman, reprising her role from the stage version), who serves as the de facto leader and “mother figure” of the group. The middle child is Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who was recently left at the altar and is eager to find some good times with another man. The baby of the group is Julie (Jessica Mauboy), a single mother with a dynamite voice and dreams of stardom.

The three of them (and a fourth, whom we’ll be getting to later) have been singing together since they were children, but they of course have dreams for something greater. Alas, being Aborigine, there’s little chance of anyone in Australia giving them a shot. So an Irishman has to do it instead.

Enter Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a drunken and disgraced talent manager who somehow drifted into Australia. He hears these girls singing and figures they’re his next meal ticket, so he arranges for them to get a highly exclusive audition. What’s the gig? To entertain American troops in Vietnam.

First, however, they recruit a fourth member: Their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens). Only trouble is, the sisters haven’t seen or heard from Kay — much less sung with her — in years.

See, Kay is what the Aborigines call a “stolen” child. This means that she’s a lighter-skinned Aborigine kid who was taken by the government, put in an institution, taught “white ways,” and then handed over to a white family. It was basically an attempt to decrease the Aborigine population by way of brainwashing. And yes, this was really done in Australia until midway through the 1970s.

Anyway, Dave recognizes that the women all have very strong voices, but they’ve only done folk and country songs until now. If a group of black women (for lack of a better term) want to get an American gig, then they’ll have to sing some good old-fasioned soul music. So he teaches them some American songs, they nail the audition, and head out to sing in Vietnam.

To recap: We have a group of Aboriginal girls singing American music, taught to them by an Irishman, and they’re going to Vietnam. Even better, they’re going from a tiny little farming reservation to a goddamned war zone. Needless to say, culture clash is a huge part of this movie.

The issue of race makes itself known in ways both large and small. For one thing, Dave teaches the Sapphires (it sounded better than their original name, which I won’t try to spell here) that soul music was written by people who are at the lowest possible point in life and are scrambling to make their way back up. In execution, it’s a very poignant and subtle parallel between the Australian natives and the African Americans, made to get the point across without beating the audience about the head. Very nicely done.

Of course, there’s also the matter of Kay. She looks like a white girl and she was raised as a white girl, though Kay insists that she knows who she is and where she comes from. Even so, there’s a great racial ambiguity to her background that comes back to haunt her at various points in the proceedings.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Gail. She is, for better and for worse, the rock of the group. She tries to serve as the moral compass, reminding the others who they are and why they’re performing. On the other hand, Gail also tends to be very intransigent. She is Aboriginal down to her core, and she refuses to change that for anyone. Moreover, there are several times when Gail seems cold and egotistical, though it’s really just her form of tough love. She’s the matriarch, large and in charge, always there to do what’s best for her family, and Lord help anyone who tries to cross her.

Which brings me to Dave. He tries to position himself as the band manager, though his background and bona fides are quite vague. There’s also a question of how much credit he deserves for the Sapphires’ continuing success, especially since his rampant drinking occasionally does more harm than good. That said, Dave is singlehandedly responsible for revitalizing the group with a new style of music, and he quite clearly has the girls’ best interests at heart. On the other hand, it’s very hard for Dave to do his job and act as a peacekeeper when Gail is very insistent that he butt out of family matters.

Gail is the matriarch of the family and Dave is the stranger trying to act as their manager. She’s the most outspoken Aborigine in a group of Australian natives, and he’s an Irish transplant who doesn’t know the first thing about their culture. Needless to say, there’s a lot of conflict between them. And then they have a romance arc.

Yeah, we might as well get to this nitpick.

The film tries for an honest-to-God romance between Gail and Dave, and it falls flat for so many reasons. It’s terribly paced, its resolution is pathetically flimsy, and O’Dowd doesn’t have anywhere near enough chemistry with Mailman to make it work. This might be brushed off if it was a representation of something that actually happened, but it wasn’t. In fact, Dave Lovelace is a purely fictional character invented for the stage play, so this failure is entirely on the storytellers.

Even so, O’Dowd turns in some very good work here. Yes, his character is very much the “white guardian angel” character you find so often in these racially-charged films, but O’Dowd imbues Dave with such passion and plays him with such effective comedy that he’s a lot of fun to watch. Of course, it also helps that the script gave him so many great quips to play with. Kudos are also due to our lead cast of women, all of whom are very talented beauties who play wonderfully off each other.

What’s even better about the lead actresses is that they can really sing. They present classic ’60s music with style and sass, which makes the musical numbers a whole lot of fun to watch and listen to. Aside from some obvious moments of lip-syncing, the music in this film is easily one of the strongest points in its favor. Well done.

So, what about some other nitpicks? Well, movies about racial issues tend to suffer from thin characterization, and this one is no exception. The film has several paper-thin antagonists and an aggressive lack of nuance with regards to race relations, though that’s only really a problem in the first act. After that, the movie leaves Australia and leaves the worst of the racist content behind.

No, the far greater problem with this movie is in the ending. Given the film’s international scope and the groundbreaking nature of this sister act, I thought that the ending was particularly weak. There wasn’t nearly enough to show how our main characters or their careers had changed as a result of their adventures, much less how their unprecedented show for the troops affected anything. Even worse, the film brought up quite a few potential romance arcs, only to leave pretty much all of them hanging. The only one of the bunch that got any kind of a decent resolution was the Dave/Gail arc, and I’ve already talked about that particular misfire.

In the end, The Sapphires is very much a feel-good movie. Though there are some very profound racial and cultural issues at play, the film doesn’t let them weigh down what’s otherwise a paper-light inspirational film. It’s ultimately the core cast that makes this film watchable, since they all turn in some fine acting performances and some dance-worthy renditions of ’60s classic music. If this one’s playing anywhere near you, I can happily recommend giving it a chance.

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