The Sapphires

Australia (2012) Dir. Wayne Blair

“Can you do it blacker?”

Not really the sort of thing to say to a group of Aboriginal singers who have endured a measure of racism in their lives but in context, it’s one of the wittier jokes in this musical rage-to…well rags tale based on a true story.

Australia 1968 and three Aboriginal singing sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) enter a local talent contest, though Julie is forbidden from attending by their mother for being too young and has a baby. Gail and Cynthia go alone singing a country and western song which fails to impress the racist audience even after Julie defies orders and shows up anyway.

However, one person who was impressed was the MC of the contest, Irish musician Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). He encourages the girls to sing soul instead of country and at their insistence, gets them a gig to sing for US troops in Vietnam. Again Julie is banned from going, forcing Gail and Cynthia to turn to estranged cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) to complete the trio. With Julie running away again, The Sapphires leave for Vietnam.

You may not have heard of The Sapphires but they did actually exist though their story is a little different. The trio of Laurel Robinson, Beverly Briggs, and Naomi Mayers played the Melbourne gig circuit which lead to an invite to tour Vietnam. Briggs and Mayer refused to go so Robinson formed a duo with her sister Lois Peeler.

Before decrying this adaptation for playing fast and loose with the facts, The Sapphires is not only based on a stage play but its writer Tony Briggs is the son of Laurel Robinson. Even so, Briggs takes a rather obvious influence from The Commitments in propagating the virtues of soul music, the main difference being his girls are actually black.

Well, not quite. Kay is Aboriginal but with lighter pigmentation from her white mother. One truly shocking revelation is the government’s treatment of these indigenous people whereby they would randomly show up and take away any child they saw fit, preferring the lighter skinned ones they send to an institution to be raised like a white child.

Kay was such a victim, and when she returned home for her mother’s funeral, she had adopted a white supremacist attitude towards her cousins, creating a long held grudge between her and Gail. Even the power of soul music can’t quash this enmity and the two come to blows in Vietnam as Gail continues to feel she is made to look inferior to Kay.

Interestingly, this isn’t an issue for the US troops, many of whom, black or white, are very keen to get jiggy with the girls. Kay falls for black medic Robby (Tory Kittles) whilst Cynthia, the “sexpot” of the group, has the guys queuing up for her company. Julie isn’t interested in romance, just the singing, leaving Gail to end up with Dave in a predictable arc that sees them going from sparring partners to lovers.

Dave was a creation for this story only, maybe Irish because of O’Dowd only being able play himself, but his role as facilitator is an important one to highlight the problem of the girls needing a white face to open doors for them. This isn’t delved into as much as it could have been, much like Kay’s struggle with her racial identity as a white Aborigine, since there are songs to be sung too.

The opening quote comes from Dave teaching the girls I Heard It Through Grapevine which they sing nicely but too cleanly, hence needing them to sound like the soul sister they look like. The banter between Dave and the sisters, especially Gail, occasionally borders on dodgy but as Dave is on their side, he only uses certain language ironically or to illustrate a point. As a character, he is more politically correct than most but still a sucker for the ladies.

Referencing The Commitments earlier is justified again once The Sapphires hit the stage. Their set list of Motown and Stax classics may differ but they are performed with a similar growing curve of early awkward gigs, blow away shows, and inevitable upstaging as egos increase. Like Alan Parker’s film, you will find yourself reaching for your records/CDs/Spotify playlists to give these songs a whirl, such is the quality of the performances.

On that front the film has a secret weapon – top selling singer and former Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy, who really does a great job with the songs and isn’t too bad at acting either. The others deserve credit for their convincing miming and execution of the choreographed moves, where getting it wrong is more of a skill that getting it right, which works due to their various heights.

Carrying the acting burden is Deborah Mailman, essaying Gail as formidable due to being the oldest but easily crushed emotionally. Shari Sebbens captures the internal conflict of Kay’s mixed heritage well enough, whilst Miranda Tapsell creates a slight problem since Cynthia is the promiscuous one yet looks about 14, especially as the younger Julie looks older than her!

Even Chris O’Dowd isn’t as annoying as he normally is for me, still playing the same character which seems to him. But as the wasted, wannabe musical Svengali Dave, this is actually something of a boon as it helps make his flaws human. The romance with Gail is unconvincing however, not helped by how it is brought about in a rushed climax that cuts the film off just before it was due to peak.

Briggs may or may not have wanted The Sapphires to double up as a social drama about racism towards Aboriginals, which would have made for a stronger if different film, considering he is honouring his mother’s groundbreaking achievements. As it stands this is a perfectly fine, slice of crowd-pleasing light entertainment with some great tunes to get your toes tapping.