‘The Sapphires’ represents the kind of film that is difficult for a critic to review. Is this great cinema? Not really. But it is a great 103 minutes at the movies. ‘The Sapphires’ possesses an exuberant, innocent fun that is simply infectious.
The picture is inspired by a true story – three aboriginal sisters and their cousin escape the racism of 1960s Australia and head to Vietnam as a singing group to entertain the troops. The group is known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds prior to being rebranded as The Sapphires; and in spite of internal discord, their singing voices remain in perfect harmony (typical of musical biopics).
‘The Sapphires’ was directed by first-time filmmaker Wayne Blair and was written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (Tony Briggs’ mother, Beverly Briggs, is one of the real-life Sapphires). On a very strange note, I must also comment on the fact the appearance of the real-life Sapphires, who we inevitably see photos of during the end credits. This is the first movie I can think of where the real-life women in which this story is based on turn out to be significantly be more attractive than the actresses portraying them on-screen.
Three of the four singers, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are sisters who live on a dusty Aboriginal reserve where they live with their parents, other family members and friends. Unfortunately, they’re forced to contend with the racism from the outside white population towards them. They perform at a local talent show, but they’re not welcome there. They’re greeted with racist remarks and are denied the victory they quite obviously should have earned. But, they catch the eye of David Lovelace (Chris O’ Dawd), a musical accompanist for the local signing talents. Two things appear to make his life worthwhile – booze and soul music. He reminds the girls that they are black, advises them to drop the country/western music routine, and to transition over to soul music. Of course, he sees this as an opportunity for him to become their manager and entertain the soul brothers serving in Vietnam. En route to Vietnam, the girls and their manager stop in Melbourne to pick up Sapphire #4, Kay (Shari Sebbens) – she was removed from the family as a child and sent to be raised by a white family due to her light skin color.
Kay’s story in particular gives the film some weight as she undergoes her own identity crisis. There is Gail’s resentment towards her but also the question of whether Kay thinks she has the upper hand over the other members of the group. After all, people don’t have racist feelings towards her due to her lighter skin, and she did have an advantageous upbringing relative to the other three Sapphires.
In a lesson he offers the girls, Dave states that country music dwells on failure whilst soul music embraces hope in the face of adversity. What ‘The Sapphires’ does well is take all of these elements of misfortune – racism, war, alcoholism, political unrest, family conflicts; and converts it into bubbly, nostalgic entertainment. We see footage of Muhummad Ali, JFK, Martin Luther King and we’re reminded of how significant these events were in American history. But, we’re also reminded of the days of Motown and how struggling African-American singers worked hard, very hard, to entertain the masses; and how some people chose to neglect their artistry and respond with racist taunts.
The Weinstein Company (the film’s distributor) was nice enough to supply us with a copy of the picture’s soundtrack on the way out of the screening. This could very well be Jessica Mauboy’s album – ten of the sixteen tracks are sung by her. Her (as well as the other cast members of The Sapphires) add a nice spin on 60s era classics such as ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Hunny Bunch)’, ‘I Heard It Through The Grape Vine’, and ‘What a Man’.
‘The Sapphires’ isn’t without its flaws – its tonal shifts from comedy to drama and back again to comedy are a little abrupt. The look of the picture is occasionally shoddy with some unpolished production. And, the main driving story about these girls’ rise to fame is both predictable and sentimental. But, even through all of its flaws, the film’s sincerity and charm stand out.
As I exited the theatre, I submitted a tweet-sized review which stated “’The Sapphires’ – Predictable but charmingly irresistible and filled with great performances; I think this is going to be a crowd-pleasing hit.” I might be wrong about this in the short run – the film is now playing in limited release (at the Varsity in Toronto). Will the picture get a wider release beyond that? I’m not sure; that is entirely dependent on the word-of-mouth it receives. This may happen during its theatrical run, or once it’s released on DVD/Blu-Ray/Netflix/On Demand. Regardless of the channel, I do hope ‘The Sapphires’ finds an audience, and I suspect it will. QED.