Sparkling warmth and toe-tapping sixties pop music flow through Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires, an upbeat and entertaining if obviously idealistic tale of four soul-singing Aboriginal women plucked from a remote outback mission to perform on stage for the troops in war-torn Vietnam. Based on a play by Tony Briggs — itself based very loosely on the experiences of Brigg’s mother and aunts — the film opts for optimism over authenticity, watering down the period’s complex and depressing racial politics into relatively straightforward hurdles for its heroines to overcome. The result is cheesy, predictable and often lacking in finesse, yet it still manages to breeze by thanks to a healthy dose of heart and humour, not to mention a great set of pipes.
Indigenous actresses Deborah Mailman (Rabbit Proof Fence), Jessica Mauboy (Bran Nue Dae) and Miranda Tapsell (TVs Mabo) play “The Cummeraganja Songbirds”, a trio of sisters whose rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” in a crummy pub talent quest pricks the ears of Dave (Chris O’Dowd; Bridesmaids), an alcoholic Irishman with music industry contacts and a belief that the ladies have what it takes. Schmoozing the girls reluctantly away from country tunes in favour of soul, and rechristening them with a more pronounceable moniker, their new-found manager soon lands them an audition in Melbourne. From there, it’s just a short plane ride to the exotic sights and sounds of Saigon.
The film fumbles in the pre-Vietnam scenes, as Blair and his screenwriters – original playwright Brigg’s plus TV scribe Keith Thompson – create conflict between their characters that frequently feels forced and unconvincing. First, Mauboy’s wilful teenaged Julie is forbidden from making the trip because her mother decides she’s too young. Then, the scheme is nearly derailed by tension between Mailman’s hard-edged Gail and the group’s long lost fourth member, pale skinned cousin Kay. The latter’s identity crisis — ancestrally Aboriginal but educated white — is one of many interesting dramatic elements the film flirts with but abruptly abandons the moment they threaten to dampen the mood. The dialogue, a combination of exposition and manufactured arguing, clunks woefully in these early sections as well, and does few favours to the actresses who are stuck with the task of delivering it.
Still, there’s plenty to make up for it. Australian idol graduate Jessica Mauboy may be the weakest of the four actresses, but there’s no denying the strength of her voice: with her singing lead, the music, including songs by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, will send toes tapping from front row to back. Matching the exuberance of the soundtrack at every turn, meanwhile, is the films unquestionable MVP: Chris O’Dowd. The lanky Emerald Islander, poised on the edge of Hollywood stardom, brings a daggy, dorky charm to his character, scoring almost all the big laughs in the film and handling his few dramatic moments with aplomb. Even the underdeveloped romance that starts to flourish between Dave and Gail seems believable thanks to their combined onscreen chemistry; while Mailman’s character is often antagonistic for no other reason than because the plot requires her to be, she too does the very best she can.
It’s a shame then, given the films obviously broad appeal, that Blair and company handle the race-related elements so poorly. As previously mentioned, Kay’s internal conflict is never explored in depth, while a flashback late in the game that pays lip-service to the stolen generation is cringingly melodramatic. At another point in the film, a connection is made between the civil rights movement in America and the struggles of Aborigines at home – it’s a genuinely fascinating idea, one that I’ve never seen addressed in a movie before. But ultimately it goes nowhere. The sisters’ mission homestead, meanwhile, is portrayed as just about the happiest and most wholesome place on earth, utterly free from poverty, marginalisation or even bad weather (something that seems all the more questionable when you realise that the film’s Director of Photography is none other than Indigenous director Warwick Thornton, whose portrayal of a contemporary Aboriginal settlement in the über-bleak Samson & Delilah couldn’t have been more different).
Still, you don’t go into Dreamgirls expecting Malcolm X. And although The Sapphires paints a more pleasant portrait than what reality might have resembled, there’s something to be said for a film about Aboriginal characters that doesn’t just wallow in images of misery. Blair’s film has its problems. But gloominess certainly isn’t one of them.