Dir. Wayne Blair, Australia, 2012, 103 mins
Review by Carol Allen
This totally delightful Australian movie deserves to be an international hit on a par with Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
It’s a fictionalised tale but based on the true story of four Aboriginal young women, two of whom were the mother and aunt of the screenwriter Tony Briggs. They formed a soul sisters group in 1968 and went to Vietnam to entertain the troops.
Three of them are sisters – Gail (Mailman), the eldest and the bossy one, who has to accept that she doesn’t have the voice to be lead singer, Julie (Mauboy) the youngest who is “the voice”, and Cynth (Tapsell), the sexy one. The fourth member of the group is Kay (Sebbens), their cousin, who can “pass for white” and was a victim as a child of the Australian government’s policy, which was the subject of another excellent Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence, of taking mixed race children away from their families and raising them as white. It’s a situation which gives her identity problems and brings her into conflict with Gail.
The man who realises the girls’ potential when he discovers them singing country music in a ramshackle bar in the outback is Dave, played by Chris O’Dowd from television’s The IT Crowd, who made his mark on the international film scene last year in Bridesmaids. The character is a shambolic, heavy drinking Irishman, who loves soul music and convinces the girls that that is the musical way to go. He persuades their protective family to let him take them under his wing, turns them into an Australian version of The Supremes and gets them the Vietnam gig. The spiky, slow burning romance between him and Gail is one of the joys of the film.
This main theme of a down-at-heel promoter discovering unknown talent and getting it to blossom, while redeeming himself along the way, is a well worn one which has been explored many times, for example in 2006’s Dreamgirls, a film with whose story The Sapphires has much in common. The treatment of that theme here though has a refreshing spontaneity. As Dave say “You’re the only aboriginal girl group I’ve ever come across” and that is one of the elements that gives the film its freshness and originality. The Vietnam war setting and the racism of Australia in the sixties both give the story a tough edge and sense of drama, the performances from actors, who are largely unknown outside Australia, are all totally engaging and full of verve and spirit, while the singing is a total joy.
In fact the Sapphires in the film are so good, if their real life counterparts were too, one wonders why they didn’t go on to international fame and fortune? The only problem with the movie is that it ends too soon. I wanted it to go on forever.