Sixties-set The Sapphires is a jukebox musical in every sense of the word; all the hits, none of the deep cuts. It makes a point to touch on the most salient aspects of the era, without delving into any of them in a satisfying way. Sure, Wayne Blair‘s film offers glimpses of the turmoil in Vietnam, occasionally demonstrates the racism towards Indigenous Australians and African Americans, alludes to the stolen generation, and preaches the healing power of soul music, but it’s not really about any of those things. It’s not really about anything. Thankfully, the wonderful performances convince us – at least while we’re watching the thing – that a Best Of package, though often lacking in substance, can still be a whole lot of fun.
The relentlessly dependable Deborah Mailman offers the best turn of the bunch as Gail, the brusque lead singer of all-Aboriginal girl group The Cummeragunja Songbirds, supported by sisters Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy). The trio tires of losing talent competitions held at predominantly white pubs, and are tempted by the promise of a $30 weekly salary to perform for soldiers at war in Vietnam. The Songbirds catch the eye of drunken Irish expat and keyboardist Dave (the ascendant Chris O’Dowd), who secures an audition for the gig, and schools them in the ways of R&B (in the place of their preferred “country and western shite”). Despite what Schoolhouse Rock may have told you, four is the magic number, and so the young ladies recruit their fair-skinned, city-living cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) and take their quartet over to Saigon. But a name like ‘The Cummeragunja Songbirds’ won’t fly there. In a move that barely registers on the ‘Compromises Made by Motown Singers’ scale, they re-christen themselves ‘The Sapphires’ and get set for superstardom.
The picture has been adapted from Tony Briggs’ much loved stage-play of the same name, based on real relatives who similarly took their act to Southeast Asia. From all reports, it similarly eschews the issues in favour of rollicking tunes and shimmering, sequined outfits. And, in the big screen adaptation, these remain the raison d’être. Blair’s direction is slick, and the final sequence offers some lasting imagery in the form of a glossy sing-along atop a flat-bed truck by the side of a glistening river (shot by Warwick Thornton). Mauboy and Mailman command the stage, though the former is given curiously little to do elsewhere, despite her character having left a baby behind at the Cummeragunja mission. O’Dowd draws from his seemingly infinite well of charm as the roguish drunkard Dave, who practically wills the movie into watchability with his manic charisma.
The Sapphires should not have to totally bear the responsibility of addressing at length the black-and-white divide that, sadly, is still evident in Australia today. In actuality, local flicks that are predominantly made to proselytise can often be just as reductive. Blair’s feature is allowed to simply concern a group of small-town girls who head into a warzone and bring comfort to frightened young men far from home. However, we rarely see them bring any comfort to the soldiers (besides the few that act as romantic foils), and if that can’t be conveyed effectively when everything else is being skimmed over, what’s left for us to take away? Just great songs and some dancing? OK, that’ll probably do.
The Sapphires arrives in Australian cinemas August 9, 2012.