It has been a long time since the Australian film industry has produced anything so uplifting, so irresistible, as The Sapphires. After an extended run of murder, mayhem, bad dialogue, and simple embarrassment, we have produced a feel-good film that actually makes one feel good – as opposed to feeling as if one is drowning in syrup. The debut feature by indigenous director, Wayne Blair, is a crisp, confident piece of entertainment that has already won a standing ovation at Cannes, and been picked up for worldwide distribution by Harvey Weinstein.
What makes this achievement all the more miraculous is that it is a movie that deals squarely with the issue of race relations from an Aboriginal perspective. This is a grim topic, and one automatically expects to encounter moral approbation, guilt, shame, and self-regarding victimhood. The perennial problem is that racists and bigots never watch those documentaries which preach relentlessly to the converted.
John Howard struck a chord with his notorious phrase about the “black armband” view of history. On one level it was disgraceful to suggest that the iniquities of the past should be swept under the carpet, but he also reflected a widespread preference for accentuating the positive.
The Sapphires succeeds in presenting a strong, affirmative view of Aboriginal Australia, while not shirking lingering issues of racism and discrimination. Most importantly, it is a brilliant piece of showbiz, driven by full-bodied soul music.
The film is based on a 2004 play by Tony Briggs, inspired by the true story of his mother, Laurel Robinson, and aunt, Lois Peeler, who travelled to Vietnam in the late 1960s to perform for US troops. The civil rights movement was making headlines in the United States, while Aboriginal people had just received the vote in an historic referendum. It was also the heyday of Motown.
In a country town we find Dave Lovelace, a gangling Irishman, trying to scrape a living by MC-ing talent contests at pubs. In one gruelling event he meets three Aboriginal girls who can really sing, and agrees to help them audition for a job entertaining the troops in Vietnam. In Melbourne they are joined by their cousin Kay, a pale-skinned member of the Stolen Generation, who has grown away from her indigenous roots. Not only will Kay have to reclaim her blackness, the entire group will have to sound blacker, as Lovelace puts it. This means ditching the maudlin country and western ballads, and adopting the vogue for Soul music.
They get the gig, put on the mini skirts and long boots, and find themselves in Saigon – an experience both liberating and terrifying. For the first time they are free from small-town prejudices, transmuted into objects of desire for thousands of battle-scarred troops. By slow stages a romance develops between Dave and Gail, the outspoken elder sister and leader of the group.
Irish actor, Chris O’Dowd, is outstanding in the role of Dave, capturing just the right degree of self-effacing humour, cockiness and buffoonery. Deborah Mailman is equally good as Gail, always spoiling for a fight but without doubt, the most glamorous and sexy part of the ensemble. The rest of the cast, notably Miranda Tapsell as Cynthia and Shari Stebbens as Kay, put in whole-hearted performances, giving the impression they enjoyed every minute of the production.
But if one figure is propelled to stardom by The Sapphires it will be Jessica Mauboy, who plays Julie. It won’t be on the strength of her acting, but because of her outstanding voice which seems tailor-made to belt out famous soul tunes. The music and the costumes carry the entire movie on a wave of sixties nostalgia that will get under the skin of the most hard-hearted viewers.
Having come fresh from the appalling Cosmopolis, I was relieved to find The Sapphires has not the slightest pretention to the arthouse circuit. Where an experienced director such as David Cronenberg makes heavy weather of a slender story, novice Wayne Blair never lets the action drag. He proves that one can insert a lot of serious points into a romantic musical comedy handled with the lightest of touches.
When Dave says to Gail: “You didn’t tell me your uncle Ed was Irish!”, she replies they prefer to keep quiet about that. The Irish angle is perfect. After the Aborigines the Irish have been historically the most marginalised part of the Australian community. It seems even more unlikely that a displaced Irishman will play the role of ‘soul brother’ in 1960s Australia, than that four indigenous girls might be transformed into Martha and the Vandells.
The Sapphires has already attracted so much attention that it carries a huge burden of expectation. Will it be Australia’s next big international hit? Being fearless enough to have fun, it deserves every success that comes its way.
The Sapphires, Australia, rated PG, 103 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 11, 2012