In 1968, a year of social upheaval and continuous war in Vietnam, an all-girl singing group from Australia toured for the American troops. From occupied cities to camps at the center of a war zone, they provided a piece of life and happiness to those living in fear and pain. They were called The Sapphires, and they were the first Aboriginal girl group to sing internationally. This zippy, lovely little film is a fictionalized biopic of their story.
From the humble beginnings to the trappings of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, and ultimately to the horrors of war, this is a standard tale about a band that almost makes it big. I could count the benchmarks as we passed them: here’s where they get their first break, here’s where a character is tempted by luxury, here’s where the love story sneaks up to charm your heart. The Sapphires never breaks movie tradition, except in one pivotal way: it tells a story with heroes I haven’t seen before.
Probably because I live on the other side of the planet, and the struggles of the native peoples of Australia isn’t featured on the news and history where I grew up, but I found this visit to a new group of characters for a familiar musical tale vividly engaging. The Aboriginals of 1960s seem to have the worst of both worlds when it comes to oppression: in a country run by white colonialists they are indigenous and they’re black, a theme executed well as a backdrop to drive their search for fame. These four girls were told their whole lives to live small, to be silent and vanish from their betters, but the world is too large for them not to seek adventure.
When three native Australian sisters find an advertisement for singers to perform before the troops in Vietnam, they recruit a down-on-his-luck piano player to help coach them into a real band. He introduces them to soul music, and they introduce him to purpose and dignity. The addition of their lighter-skinned cousin makes four, and from there, the world is their oyster. Great music, war, alcohol, romance, danger: what’s not to like?
In smaller films like The Sapphires, casting will make or break the feature. The film does an excellent job on this front, because all four of the main actresses shone in their respective moments. The stand out was Deborah Mailman, who played Gail, the eldest Sapphire. Protective of her girls and ready to fight the world that had always fought her, Mailman plays Gail as a woman whose every emotion shows on her face. For better or worse, she makes her heart visible to the world even while trying to protect it. Chris O’Dowd’s character Dave is an excellent balance to Gail, with jovial brusqueness hiding a kind and earnest soul. Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, and Shari Sebbens also bring life to their characters. The whole ensemble is a pleasure to watch, and the singing is a delightful tour of 1960s classics.
At an hour and a half, this movie is exactly as long as it needs to be. Even if I could predict the ending of the story, I enjoyed every minute of it passing. Great costumes, excellent music, and characters that you care about: there’s nothing to dislike here, and quite a lot to smile at. It belongs rightfully beside other beloved films about musical coming of age: Almost Famous, That Thing You Do!, and Dreamgirls. I recommend it thoroughly.
- Starring: Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Chris O’Dowd, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
- Directed by: Wayne Blair
- Running Time: 103 minutes
- Genre: Drama, Comedy, Romance, Musical