Stuck in an unpronounceable reserve in the Australian Outback in 1968, a talented young singing group of indigenous women decides the best career move open to them is touring military bases in Vietnam – during the war. And they could be right.
At home, the audience was far tougher. “The Sapphires” is inspired by a real family of sisters and cousins, and how these four young women refused to be held back by racism and ignorance.
It’s a romantic comedy.
Director Wayne Blair, who hails from the Outback, embraces his story with wry humor, heartfelt emotion and plenty of good music. The screenplay is adapted from a musical of the same name, written by the son of one of the women who inspired the story, which may account for the warmth and affection that underlie even moments of bickering and tears.
Three sisters – Gail, Cynthia and Julie – leave their rural “mission” (something like an Indian reservation in the U.S.) to compete in a town talent contest. Though their twanging rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” is rejected by the white audience, they do get the attention of David Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), the dissolute musician who’s there to accompany the contestants.
Somehow, these prickly people connect, and youngest sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy) persuades Dave to help them answer an ad recruiting singers to perform for troops in Vietnam. He agrees but insists on some changes. “You’re black, and you’re singing country and western stuff,” he says, the anguish palpable. “It’s just wrong.”
In Melbourne, they collect their fair-skinned cousin Kay and get their act together.
O’Dowd settles in with a disarming talent for turning this wannabe group into real performers. Taking on “Mama Bear” big sister Gail (Deborah Mailmen, playing her all full of fight), he point outs “Your voice isn’t good enough to sing lead.” As the other girls look on, Gail growls out, “You want to say that again?”
“Not really,” Dave tells his keyboard, but Julie – the best singer – does take over in front.
And do the girls from no town start singing Motown – real soul music, in which, unlike country, the people may be down, but they are still trying to get back up, according to Dave, and they are off to Saigon.
Once on tour, each young woman plays out her own version of hopes and dreams, with Kay connecting to a black U.S. soldier, Cynthia looking for love that’s better than what she left at home and Julie reaching for the stars. Blair skillfully layers their experiences over the fiery history of the world at that moment – with antiwar protest, civil rights marches and shocking assassinations – and lets them be changed by it.
The Sapphires never became Australia’s answer to the Supremes, and considering how things worked out for some in that top-tier girl group, it’s probably OK.
But also don’t confuse “The Sapphires” with that other singing theatrical, “Dreamgirls.” This one is more laughter than tears, more heart than hurt.
Considering that it is from Australia, if you have to compare it to any wonderful theatrical girl group, try “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Only these gals look better in their sequins.