Gals from Down Under turn heads playing unlikely crooners, but ‘The Sapphires’ wins points for its sizzle and originality
Four Aboriginal women morph into The Supremes Down Under in The Sapphires, but it’s not the festive music or passionate singing that makes this film the precious little gem it is. It’s the acting and the writing. And that’s downright refreshing considering the majority of mind-numbing productions that come out of Hollywood these days.
The good news is that The Sapphires isn’t “Hollywood” at all.
The Australian film, which has racked up more than a dozen awards since its original release late last year, takes its inspiration from the compelling true story of four Aboriginal women—sisters Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, and their cousins, Naomi Mayers and Beverley Briggs—who sang together during their youth in the 1960s and ’70s. As part of the Yorta Yorta people, they boasted a prominent extended family of brothers and sisters who also performed regularly in front of their clans. But it would be Laurel and Lois who turned heads when they—by some stroke of good fortune—toured Vietnam in the late 1960s, singing to the American soldiers there. It was a significant achievement at the time, especially for two young Aboriginal women—Aboriginal people had just been given the right to vote, after all, and prejudice had run rampant for some time.
Based on the play of the same name, which first hit the Australian stage in 2005, the film is co-written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs—Beverly’s son. But several nuances have been added to the real-life tale. For starters, instead of just two gals singing in Vietnam, we get four. And all under the questionable yet insistent guidance of a wannabe big-time singing-act manager named Dave Lovelace, underplayed—surprisingly—with bravura by Chris O’Dowd. You may recognize the man. He was in the periphery of Kristen Wiig’s love life in Bridesmaids and had a recurring role on HBO’s Girls. Everything from his timing and delivery to his uncanny way of embodying a character and expressing just the right degrees of emotion and intellect—or lack thereof—is energizing.
How Dave and the girls initially connect and determine that an all-girl group must be formed and, eventually, audition for a chance to perform for the troops in Vietnam, is fun to watch, even though, at times here, the script falls victim to Montage Sequence 101. Still, it’s the mindful character development by the writers and director Wayne Blair’s crafty ability to effectively capture both the internal and external Aboriginal landscapes that strike some winning chords.
This is particularly evident in the character of Gail (Deborah Mailman), the centerpiece of the all-girl posse and somebody who expounds both big-sister and motherly concern and affection for her fellow crooners. Through Gail we often are reminded of the struggles of the Aboriginal people; that even if their hopes and dreams are fading, their hearts continue to soar. Most of all, Gail exudes a link to past traditions and the tight familial bonds that can never truly be broken. Mailman so brilliantly adds beauty and depth to this creature and the film is all the better because of it.
Each of the actresses shine in their own ways—Shari Sebbens (Kay), Miranda Tapsell (Cynthia) and Jessica Mauboy (Julie) bring to the creative table a distinctly unique intensity. As Cynthia, Tapsell is a hoot playing “the diva”; Sebbens’ Kay, considered half-white, manages to effectively portray the inner conflict of a character whose bond was severed from the original tribe in a dramatic turn of events ages ago. Keep your eyes on Mauboy though—her Julie is bumped up to lead singer and the actress performs all of her own vocals here, showing off her impeccable range and hypnotic musical prowess. Underneath the character’s talent, however, Mauboy shows us how much Julie is wrestling with her vulnerabilities.
As for the actual music, it’s so ’60s. Classics like “What A Man,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Who’s Loving You” are on the roster. Other performances (some by O’Dowd) are also entertaining. Love isn’t left out either, and the writers do a nice job of setting up several possibilities.
Something else to savor: the writers and director Blair manage to make the Vietnam arc more “interesting” instead of preachy. We’re following the wildly fascinating story of these gals, after all, not expounding upon the inner workings of global politics (much). Audiences already are well versed on the atrocities of the era so it’s nice that the film manages to stay on track. In the hands of other directors, it could have tipped and sent the film spiraling in another direction.
What we walk away with then, is one of the most out-of-the-ordinary films of the season, one, while predictable at times, is filled with journeys and characters we don’t often see—a movie that contains a heartfelt magic that, in most American films (for the most part) has been quickly fading to black.
It’s nice this jewell shines so bright.
The Sapphires ★ ★ ★ (out of four) With Chris O’ Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell. Written by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson. Directed by Wayne Blair. 103 minutes. Rated PG. Watch film trailer >>>