The sweet feel-good Australian film mostly charms with its broad appeal, mixing politics in between the song and dance numbers.
Australia loves a song and dance number, from the neo-renaissance of Priscilla Queen of the Desert through to Bran Nue Dae. Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires has already enjoyed international success at Cannes, garnering the requisite standing ovations and Weinstein Company attention that most films only dream of, mirroring the protagonists own rise to fame in the 1960s. Based on the stage play of the same name by Tony Briggs, whose own mother, Laurel Robinson and aunt, Lois Peeler toured Vietnam as singers, the film about the first all-girl Aboriginal singing group is sure to be as pleasing to a homegrown audience as it was abroad.
Gail (Deborah Mailman), Diana (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are trying to get into a local pub talent contest, but are met with racism and the stern words of their mum (Kylie Belling). However, they are spotted by the alcoholic Irish talent quest host and soul survivor Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) who they convince to take them to Vietnam on the condition they stop singing country music. A quick trip to Melbourne to pick up cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), estranged from the family when she was removed from their Cummeragunja mission by force, and the girls are off to Saigon to become overnight sensations.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of the late 1960s, the politics of The Sapphires are not subtle, but rarely have they been explored in such a broad Australian musical comedy. Institutionalised racism, the Stolen Generation and the familial turmoil it caused, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the war itself are explored between songs, and not in any depth. By contrast, their Cummeragunja mission is a place of comfort, and this not only sits in contrasts with the war zone they perform in, but in other depictions of missions in Australian cinema. This gives the girls a sense of home and belonging to cling to, rather than undermining the message Blair brings to the table.
The cast works well as an ensemble, the experienced Deborah Mailman naturally taking the lead as the eldest sister. While she may have been slightly miscast as the “20-something” that the press notes imply, she is also able to provide the gravitas needed to form the emotional core as the angry “mother hen” and successfully play off the romantic tension with Chris O’Dowd. Miranda Tapsell is the standout of the four, her flirtatious character providing many of the laughs and easy charm of the film, while the powerful voice of Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy carries impressively staged versions of “What A Man” and “I’ll Take You There”. O’Dowd effortlessly slips into this world, his affable charms telegraphing some of the jokes, but to humorous effect nonetheless.
The Sapphires does get weighed down in the sticky treacle that it constantly wades through, from maudlin visits to injured troops to the obligatory evacuation-under-fire sequence. Yet where the film excels is in the musical numbers, either in practice or on stage. It may mirror the Oscar-winning Dreamgirls, but the combination of Warwick Thornton’s warm cinematography, a roster of popular tunes and generally rosy outlook are sure to make this the local crowd-pleaser of the year.
The Sapphires is released in Australia on 9 August 2012 from Hopscotch Films.