Even if The Sapphires were nothing more than a cute musical comedy about a 1960s-era girl group of Aboriginal Australians who get their big break singing for American soldiers in Vietnam, it would still be a winning piece of entertainment, with personality to spare. But underneath the showbiz story is the fact that the four young women in the Sapphires are part of the so-called “Stolen Generation.” Their adventures are based on true stories.
Difficult as it might be to imagine now, until Australia’s 1967 Referendum on the subject, Aboriginals essentially had no civil or political rights in that country. According to the movie’s opening crawl, they weren’t even officially people — Aboriginals were officially classified under “Flora and Fauna” — and authorities were under orders to take light-skinned Aboriginal youths away from their families and place them with foster families to be “raised white.”
That’s the situation the Cammeragunja Songbirds are coming from. In 1968, high-spirited sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), from the rural Cammeragunja settlement, boldly enter a talent contest as the only non-white contestants. The local gubbas (white people) are openly hostile to the singing sisters, but their sweet voices charm a wandering Irish sod named Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd from Bridesmaids), who’s between jobs and open to suggestions. An American company is looking for musical acts to travel to Vietnam and entertain the troops, and Dave volunteers to manage the girls for their big audition. He only has one requirement for them: stop singing country and western and learn soul music. Trade Merle Haggard for Marvin Gaye.
The newly redubbed Sapphires add one more voice, their fair-skinned cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was brought up white — half Irish, as it happens — but is now ready to cross back over, and the loquacious but haphazard Dave teaches the quartet the entire Motown and Stax-Volt catalog, with dance moves. The four singer/actresses perform “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” and other Sixties R&B tunes with the same passionate intensity they put into Ms. Mauboy’s Aboriginal folk song “Ngarra Burra Ferra.” Next stop: Saigon.
If the wartime settings of The Sapphires look a little more authentic than usual, it’s because the Australian production went on location in Ho Chi Minh City for the girls’ overseas tour. First-time director Wayne Blair, who’s Aboriginal himself, takes pains to make the Vietnam scenes as realistic as possible despite the modest budget, but this is a romantic musical, not a remake of Apocalypse Now. The real story is the coming-out of the four young women, and their people.
The romance between stoner Dave and the headstrong Gail takes center stage when the Sapphires aren’t belting. Actress Mailman is a soulful match for O’Dowd’s hang-loose hipsterism. If anything, the screenplay by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (son of Beverly Briggs, one of the original women on which the film is based) overdoes the light laughs to make its point about the long, hard road of the Aboriginal people. The Sapphires have no trouble at all relating to African-American soldiers or unemployed Irish ex-pats. And they can put a song across just like the Dreamgirls. What’s not to like?