The Sapphires

There has been a rise in the output of musical comedies in recent years, with shows and movies like Glee and Pitch Perfect. Another film to be added to that growing list is Wayne Blair’s new film, The Sapphires. Littered with happy 1960s soul-pop tunes, it maintains an upbeat tone, while raising the stakes of “making it” to higher than those of high school show choir competition standards.

The Sapphires documents the true story of four girls, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who live in Australia in the 1960s, and whose success in the music industry is hindered by widespread racial discrimination. The quartet, originally known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds, started at a very young age, singing folky and native songs for friends and family on their Aboriginal reserve. The film fast-forwards ten years to see the Songbirds singing at a talent show in a pub with almost exclusively white patrons. Here they meet Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), resident drunkard and ex-cruise ship entertainment manager with a passion for soul, who recognizes the girls’ talent and decides to train them to sing for soldiers in Vietnam. He hones their skills in stage performance and introduces them for the first time to soul music. Thus, The Sapphires are born.

Clips of black-and-white newsreel footage place the story in its cultural and political context, while the film’s intimate devotion to the main characters highlights their unique and more personal, raw struggle. For instance, Kay, as a young child was stolen from the native reserve by the government because she was fair-skinned, and could pass for white. She lived the next ten years of her life in a white community, and was forcibly assimilated into white culture. The film does not explicitly document her time away from her family, but later shows Kay’s struggle to bridge these two disparate words in the palpable tension between her and Gale, who resents Kay for shunning her sisters, only to show up after Cynthia and Julie tell her of their plans for their singing careers.

Although Julie is lead vocal, Gale shines as moral authority of the group, assuming the role of what Lovelace terms “Mama Bear.” There is grace in her annoying confrontational tendencies, in her overbearing protection of the other girls, and in her personal and professional failures. O’Dowd also splendidly depicts a character that tries so hard, yet falls short of meeting any and all expectations. Lovelace is by no means perfect, but he has good intentions.  As the girls’ manager, he inserts some of his own “soul” into their style, and dampens the “country-western” influence that came from the music to which they had grown accustomed to performing. He strives to make them, as he puts it, “blacker.” But the film seems to ask whether the girls are exploring and affirming their identities, or changing at root who they are.

The cinematography proved, at times, cheesy almost to the point of comedy during some dramatic war scenes, and some character development seemed forced and rushed, as in Kay’s decision to abandon her community so willingly to join the Songbirds in Vietnam. But, the charm of the story and the characters overshadow – and allow the audience to forgive – these faults. The quartet has less interest in achieving worldwide stardom (they had never even heard of The Apollo Theater until Lovelace mentioned it), than in showcasing each of their individual talents. Their humility lends the film emotional appeal; they don’t expect much of themselves, but achieve greatness nonetheless.