Sometimes, one can't help but imagine the pitch meetings. In the case of The Sapphires, it could well have gone something like...think of Whale Rider meets The Commitments! Or perhaps it was more a matter of Rabbit Proof Fence meeting Dream Girls. And then they placed a conference call to The Commitments. Though I suppose it would be Skype at this point.
What we have more specifically with The Sapphires is a film about a group of aboriginal young women whose musical aspirations converge with a shambolic soul-music-loving Irishman. These charmingly disparate souls soon find themselves touring the war zone that was Vietnam in 1968. All of this based on a play of the same name. And based loosely, as is said (and quite appropriately, in this case), on real events and characters.
The 1968 timing is significant not only for all the upheaval that was occurring in the world, but for what was beginning to happen in Australia. The country's 1967 referendum marked the beginning of its federal government's move to redress some of the long-standing discrimination and legal inequities that had been afflicting its aboriginal populations. As an opening informational blurb explains, one of the most devastating of racist practices in Australia had been the ongoing removal of fair-skinned aboriginal children to institutions or white families for assimilation. These the Stolen Children, or Stolen Generations.
Change might have been coming to Australia, but as The Sapphires begins, racial harmony has not exactly been universally achieved. The aboriginal people we see are living together on what seems a comfortable reservation. It's the Cummeragunja Reserve in New South Wales. This being a film hell bent on feel-goodness, everyone we see is attractive and charming in their way. The elders wise. Very little strife that can't be quelled by a joining together in song. No sign of the less savory details of life for those forced to live in such a manner.
But since the film is not set on the moon, we do have to be shown examples of discrimination in practice. The first occurs when the girls, calling themselves Cummeragunja Songbirds, head into town to perform in a talent show. The festivities are emceed with decided apathy by the aforementioned Irishman, Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd). We first see the Irish soul brother aroused from a drunken sleep in the back of his Hillman Husky station wagon by some local kids. He wanders pantslessly into the bar where his is employed female proprietor, seeing occasionally to her sexual needs apparently one of his duties as assigned, beyond playing master of ceremonies for the show to which talent remains a stranger.
Until the Cummeragunja Songbirds show up, of course. Their performance is a microcosm of all that is appealing and dubious about The Sapphires. The black and white present in the story of the film extends beyond the various shades of skin on display. It's plays out in the white Aussies who take the humble stage - all laughably bland - for whom the bored Lovelace can't even feign interest, to the Songbirds, who are, of course, great. And indeed there is something beautiful about a group of aboriginal girls belting out Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again." So good are they that Lovelace pushes aside his glass of beer and provides accompaniment on electric piano. In a film that takes no chances, none of the singing, even an intimate scene with the girls and their mother, singing the latter's favorite, "Yellow Bird," happens live. It's all clearly being lip-synced from a recording. Although Jessica Mauboy, who plays Julie, does sing on many of the soundtrack's songs and has a strong voice to match her presence. The singing sounds good, the young women have charisma. Don't think too much and you're likely to have a good time with The Sapphires. So it goes.
Not surprisingly, the talent show does not go the way of the Cummeragunja Songbirds. When Lovelace expresses his incredulity at this travesty, he gets himself kicked out of the establishment along with Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Ms. Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell). After a feisty kind of dalliance between group and the hapless Lovelace, and after the fortuitous failure to launch on the part of the station wagon, they decide to respond to a call for entertainers for American troops in Vietnam with the Irishaman as the Songbirds manager. All head off to Melbourne for an audition, though not before Lovelace is admonished by one of those elders to take good care of the girls, all the while demonstrating his skill with a knife while gutting a fish.
There is a certain symmetry to this joining of forces between an Irishman and a few representatives of Australia's aboriginal population. This beyond the fact that there was in the family co-writer Tony Briggs an Irish uncle. Briggs wrote the play version of The Sapphires. His mother, Laurel Robinson, was one of two Koori (the indigenous Australians who occupied the parts of the country now known as New South Wales Victoria) women who did tour Vietnam in 1968. Many Irish found themselves in Australia or Tasmania, where the English established penal colonies from the late-18th century, sometimes shipped to the antipodes for little more than being Irish (or daring to assert that the Irish should rule their own country). There are common traces of suffering, much as some of those downtrodden Irish probably produced future generations who, in turn, behaved poorly toward the Australians who where there before them. So it goes.
The Lovelace character, however, has no historical basis. Nor was he present in the play. It's where the film version, in the words of director Wayne Blair, "...went a big Argo." Well, yes. It is when Lovelace is first considering the possibility of managing the group - asking them if they "sing anything other than that country and western shite" - and later urging to girls to really sell the R & B songs he's gotten them to perform for the troops in Vietnam that The Sapphires does seem to be a film written while The Commitments was playing on a television in the same room. At certain of these moments, Chris O'Dowd is left a bit pantsless himself and that ample Irish charm is sorely taxed.
To the story's credit, there's some time devoted to all of the characters of the young women. This is true of the "original" trio of Gail, Julie and Cynthia, as well as Kay (Shari Sebbens), a sister brought back into the fold while the Songbirds are in Melbourne for their audition. Kay was one of those light-skinned children of the Stolen Generations. She's not pleased to see her aboriginal sisters appear unannounced while she's among white friends. But before long, she joins her singing sisters, lest she also be sucked into the Tupperware generation among the other loudly-clad Melbourne women with whom she's been trying to fit in. It is Kay who renames the group to The Sapphires during the audition, when the those holding the tryout prove no more capable of pronouncing Cummeragunja than does Lovelace on several occasions. As with the talent show, the story line of Kay's character is The Sapphires at its best and worst. There's a ham-fisted flashback that shows Kay returning to the reserve for a funeral and renouncing her family and heritage. A later scene, no less contrived, shows the ritual of Kay being welcomed back among her people. The latter sequence is moving because Ms. Sebbens (herself of both white and aboriginal lineage) is so clearly feeling what she's supposed to be acting.
The Sapphires also devotes increasing amounts of attention to the least glamorous- at least by Hollywood standards; I don't know how this usually goes in Australia - of the sisters, Gayle. Gayle is played by Deborah Mailman, the one holdover from the stage play (in which she actually had the role of the youngest sister, Cynthia). Lovelace makes the necessary though perilous decision to demote the formidable Gayle from lead singer before they hit the various stages in Vietnam. And it would appear that Mailman is the least accomplished singer and dancer of the group. But of all the women, she is clearly the most experienced actress, and it shows. A perhaps quite inevitable relationship ensues between Gayle and Lovelace, the greatest barrier to which is not race, but the manager's drunken buffoonery. And that annoying war, as it turns out. Clearly, the addition of the rising star that is O'Dowd was a casting coup for this relatively small film. But just as Gayle is clearly the stronger of the two characters, the "mama bear" as the Irishman refers to her, Mailman's performance does a lot more the the heavy lifting in the film.
As it goes with these "based on a real story" films, there are yet more of those informational blurbs before the credits roll, telling us what became of the real women who inspired The Sapphires. It's nice to read that they all remained in or returned to Australia to advocate for their people(s) in one way or another. This also serves to tie up the entire package of the film with a pleasing bow. What we're not told is that two of the original three singers did not choose to travel to Vietnam, because they were opposed to the war. Screenwriter Tong Briggs mother, Laurel Robinson, apparently did go. And if you're at all inclined to think about what you're seeing as you watch The Sapphires, you might wonder whose interests were best served by the group performing for troops during the war. And who, for that matter, is best served by the film. These are fair questions since The Sapphires goes to some pains to tie itself to the real story and sets its late-60s scene by a montage of images and soundbites, which include various demonstrations against the war and excerpts of Muhammad Ali's famous questioning of the same, wondering why he should go to serve in Vietnam when his own people were being denied basic human rights in Louisville.
The Sapphires succeeds on its appealing surface, breathing life into some generally familiar R & B nuggets performed in the film, no small task given how often we've heard the likes of I Heard it Through the Grapvine flogged on radio and elsewhere. With the major adaptations that have occurred from life to stage to screen, the attempt to tie any of this to the greater suffering of Australian aboriginal peoples (or African Americans) is not one the film would seem to deserve. But it's easy enough to enjoy the work of these particular women of aboriginal or mixed-race heritage. And if this is a point of pride for the Koori, if this does any social good in Australia or elsewhere, all the better.