Occasionally we see a film where the positive messages offset the content concerns. While it doesn’t mean the movie is suitable for all family members, the production still merits attention from appropriate audiences. The Sapphires falls into that category.
Movies about girl groups aren’t uncommon. Dreamgirls, Spice World, Josie and the Pussycats, The Runaways, even Mamma Mia! feature female singers. But The Sapphires has a broader focus than these performers’ musical ambitions.
During the turbulent 60s, racial prejudice raged as prevalently Down Under as it did on American soil. Until 1967, Australian Aborigines weren’t even considered human by the British. Their light-skinned children were routinely taken from their homes on mission land and placed with white families to be raised. This government policy, intended to civilize the natives, resulted in the country’s Stolen Generation.
Such is the setting for The Sapphires. In 1968, Aborigines Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), their little sister Julie (Australian R&B singer Jessica Mauboy) and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) want to perform for the troops in Vietnam. The only problem is finding a way for this group from a remote mission in the Outback to get an audition. At a local talent show (where the only applause they receive is from a boy too young to be tainted by bigotry), they stumble upon Dave Loveland (Chris O’Dowd), a scruffy, floundering music manager who drinks like a fish. Though not polished, the sisters’ rendition of a Merl Haggard tune catches Dave’s attention and, after some badgering from the girls, he arranges an audition—but only if they agree to give up the country and western songs and sing Motown favorites.
Just because these sisters have dark skin doesn’t mean the soul music comes easily to them. And making amends with their light-skinned cousin Kay, who was whisked away from her home as a child, also takes effort. But their goal to sing in Saigon helps them push through their problems.
Based on a true story and a subsequent stage play, the script, written by the son of one of the real Sapphires, is a labor of love. Unfolding slowly, the obvious thrust of the story is the girls’ short career rather than the events that rocked that decade. Black and white footage of war protests, Martin Luther King’s speech and the riots that followed his assassination serve only as a backdrop in this film. Rather, it explores racial prejudice, the strength of family and culture ties and changing norms. While the movie features less than perfect Hollywood faces, the casts’ real looks are a refreshing twist in this Australian-made production. And although the plot meanders at times, the pace allows for characters to develop in a realistic way.
However, the film also features a brief but intense scene of warfare. Meant to mimic real events, rather than the kind of explosive action found in titles like G.I. Joe Retaliation, the war violence and the resulting injuries depicted here have a more sobering feel. Frequent smoking and drinking are also portrayed, along with a casual attitude toward sexual activity and profanities.
Although The Sapphires never achieved the fame of groups like The Supremes, this quiet little story of their contribution during the chaotic events of the Vietnam War offers inspiring entertainment for older teens and adults.