Singing to the Troops
Film Review: “The Sapphires”
Based on a true story, a feel-good Aussie tale about a group of Aboriginal girls with big dreams of singing professionally and seeing the world. The Vietnam War was an unexpected first stage.
The 2012 Australian musical comedy-drama, The Sapphires drops the needle on a nostalgic turntable of soulful hits from the 60s while maintaining a heartfelt yet playful beat throughout this charmer of a picture. The film takes place in 1968, first in the racially charged rural hinterlands of Australia and then in Saigon and beyond, on the front lines of the war in Vietnam.
The story centers on three Indigenous (or Aboriginal) sisters and their cousin, whose young lives have been shaped by the systemic racism of the day in a country in which their people are thought of on the same level as livestock or agricultural products.
Gail (Deborah Mailman) and her younger sisters Cindy (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) have a shared talent and a collective dream: to ‘get out of Dodge’ with their voices as their ticket out. Growing up in the Cummeragunja Reserve (akin to an Indian reservation), removed from the outside world and fiercely protected by their elders, their appearance in town is routinely met with open hostility by the entitled White population, so it’s no surprise that when they outshine the local dregs in a mediocre talent competition, the prize goes to a no-talent White girl. Someone who takes notice is the Irish drunk who emcees the show, Dave Lovelace (perfectly cast in shaggy dog Chris O’Dowd), who suggests to the girls that they should be singing Soul instead of Country Western ‘shite’. When one of the sisters pulls out a newspaper ad for a talent search — to perform for the troops in Vietnam — Dave volunteers to manage the group, only when he sees a cash reward in it for himself. After meeting the family and promising that no harm will come to the girls, he whisks them off to rehearse in Melbourne before the big audition, where they are joined by cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), herself a fair-skinned Aborigine who’s been passing as White.
The bad blood between Gail and Kay is explained later, in flashback, when we learn about the horrific abduction of light-skinned Aboriginal children (mostly girls) to forced re-education camps in which they learned “White ways’ and were farmed out to well-to-do families, mostly as servants and laborers. A long stain on the history of Australia, widely documented, called the Stolen Generations, and for NSP fans referenced poignantly in the remarkable film, Rabbit-Proof Fence.
When Dave and the girls — now called The Sapphires — arrive in Saigon, it’s another world entirely. One in which they quickly ‘find their voices’, in more ways than one. It’s also a place rife with danger and romance, and where racism has also reared its ugly head. But it’s mostly about the Music, which resonates to Dave and the group and those they sing for, in a deeper, more soulful way than they could ever predict. How will this experience shape who they are and who they want to be when they come home from the War? Assuming they can ever truly get back home?
Directed by Wayne Blair and adapted from Tony Briggs’ stage play (about his Mom’s own story) The Sapphires succeeds on many levels, and where it may fall short — mostly on the basis of an inexperienced cast and sometimes silly dialogue — is forgiven for the generous amount of heart that abounds throughout the picture. Especially enlightening is the sprinkling of archival news footage throughout which informs us on the politics of the day, both in the American Civil Rights arena and the quest for equality among the Indigenous tribes in Australia.
The excellent vocal performances were recorded by (mostly) Jessica Mauboy and an assortment of other artists. In the movie, Dave bills The Sapphires as Australia’s answer to The Supremes, and although it’s an overreach, there is definitely a tantalizing electricity to the performances, made all the more visceral by virtue of the troops that make up their audience, hungry for a sound that reminds them of Home. And like all good stories about growing up, the path is long and winding, with some dangerous dips and turns, but when you finally come back to where you started, it feels like a fresh beginning.
The Sapphires is presently streaming on Netflix.
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