Review by Nerissa Rowan
I am a big music fan, a sucker for a great voice. And there are so many of them in this new Australian movie that I can’t get it out of my head. It has a great soundtrack of 60s soul that will stick with you for days.
The Sapphires follows a group of Aboriginal girls who are coached by soul aficionado Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) to become a professional singing group. While Chris O’Dowd plays his regular character — an awkward Irishman who’s yet to find his place in the world — he handles the drama just as well as the comedy, putting in an authentic performance.
The talents of sisters Gail (AFI award-winner Deborah Mailman), Julie (pop singer Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and their cousin Kay (Shair Sebbens), lead them to Vietnam to entertain troops. There they find love, fear and a deeper understanding of the world.
A lot of people seem to avoid Australian movies, but The Sapphires may restore their faith in our Aussie filmmakers. It’s a beautiful story, with a balance of Aussie humour, romance and political commentary. It’s proudly Australian without crossing the line to engage the cultural cringe that turns many viewers away from potentially good films.
Writer Tony Briggs took inspiration for the film (and stage play, the original production of which also starred Deborah Mailman) on the time his mother, Laurel Robinson, spent in Vietnam. Robinson’s Motown singing group, which featured her cousins, Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers, originally formed when their families staged concerts to earn money. When Robinson was accepted to perform in Vietnam, she took her sister Lois Peeler as backup singer. Refused accommodation, the girls slept on the stage.
Briggs made a conscious effort to craft an enjoyable story rather than focusing on the racial and political conflict.
Briggs told ABC’s 7:30 Report: “I’ve always wanted this film to be more about fun and entertainment than anything else. But having said that, you can’t do a story about those times with Aboriginal people — and be an Aboriginal person — and not have certain elements in there.”
The issue of racism is an underlying theme, told with subtle and believable examples that avoid making the film overly political. Behaviour that seems shocking to most modern audiences shows just how far we’ve come, while reminding us there is always further to go.
While the film reportedly enjoyed a 10-minute standing ovation after its debut screening in Cannes, reviews have criticised a lack of depth. However, The Sapphires has been nominated for the Australian Writer’s Guild Awgie Award (Feature Film Adaptation). I’ll leave you to judge if that was on its merits or for lack of contenders. Those backing the film have faith in it, with release dates already set in France and the UK.
I saw The Sapphires as a celebration of music, life and overcoming adversity. Perhaps my enjoyment was shallow, but the music, humour and warmth in the film left me completely satisfied. A rather predictable ending was balanced for me by the sheer joy of the film, and the real-life inspiration is honoured as the final credits roll.
THE SAPPHIRES, directed by Wayne Blair, opens on August 9.
As a poet, performer and writer, NERISSA ROWAN dabbles at the edges of Brisbane’s arts scene. She is on Queensland Poetry Festival’s Program Committee and reviews for Arts Hub.