Houston Cinema Arts Festival: The Sapphires – Review


An Aboriginal ‘Dreamgirls’ that let’s its soul glow.

Bill Murray was wrong in What About Bob? when he said that there were two kinds of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. Actually, in the case of Wayne Blair’s film debut The Sapphires, you either have soul or you don’t.

On the surface it may appear that this musical drama is an Australian Dreamgirls. Both deal with a group of singing songstresses, so there’s plenty of soulful tunes and friction within the group, but in the case of Dreamgirls it doesn’t carry the same socio-cultural message as The Sapphires.

Told with a heartwarming sensibility with plenty of laughs to go along with its great music, the film’s title refers to an all-Aboriginal vocal group – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) – who leave their outback community of Cummeraganja and travel to Vietnam to entertain the US troops. Shepherding the four ladies is Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a hair strewn, five-o-clock-shadow sporting keyboardist who offers to be their manager after hearing three of the four perform during a talent contest at a local pub. From the start he knows their act needs freshening up – they were performing a Merle Haggard tune despite having no idea what Country & Western music means. While Dave may be white on the outside, inside his blood beats black, all the way to his soul.

It wouldn’t be a story about fame without a little controversy, and like most stories revolving around musical stardom the group must deal with frictions about who is the best singer of the four and because of the color of their skin they must deal with broad and far-reaching racial tensions.

Through the use of archival footage involving the plight of the black man during the Civil Rights Movement, including clips of Cassius Clay denouncing the war in Vietnam and African-Americans taking to the streets after the announcement of Dr. Martin Luther King’s untimely passing, it seems that the filmmakers were giving the audience a little shove so that they could see the bigger picture at what was transpiring in the world. However, the narrative involving The Sapphires alone would have sufficed. When the film begins the audience gets a written account of “The Stolen Generation,” a period in Australia’s history where Aboriginal children were removed from their families by the state government and put in the homes of white families. Kay, the fair-haired member of the group, quarrels with cousin Gail and it involves more than just hair pulling. Kay’s current status and her dismissive nature of her aboriginal heritage is a subtle parable to what was happening in the United States.

Even with the civil rights and racism undercurrent, The Sapphires is pretty sanitized with its commentary about the Stolen Generation. The impact is all but removed once the girls travel to Vietnam. Racism is put on the backburner but comes to a head quickly in a brief moment involving a wounded white soldier who would rather die than have his wounds treated by black hands. To his credit, director Blair was smart to not make the Stolen Generation a forcible issue and put greater emphasis on the relationship of these four women and their manager.

A protest movie that is more about the story than it is the message, The Sapphires‘ strongest piece is its music. With cover versions of soulful classics “I’ll Take You There” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” among others, the performance numbers are keen with the occasional over-dubbing problems. The singing is well done, particularly the numbers by Jessica Mauboy, who was a finalist on Australian Idol.

In terms of acting, Bridesmaids‘ Chris O’Dowd offers the most in terms of charisma and laughs. Sometimes he even upstages his female counterparts because his character is so funny. He, along with Deborah Mailman, who plays Gail, anchors the cast. They have the most defined personalities of the group, with him being a self-proclaimed “Soul Man” and she a mother hen to the rest of the girls. When the film veers into a romantic relationship between the two it seems a little underdeveloped. They don’t spend that many scenes together to develop a strong chemistry where you would automatically assume a relationship beyond friendship.

Still, this quibble and the non-issue that becomes the Stolen Generation when they head to Vietnam aside, The Sapphires is a soulful treat. In fact, in terms of music and entertainment it seems to have more in common with Good Morning, Vietnam than the rousing musical numbers that define Dreamgirls. Picked up by The Weinstein Company for wider distribution this fall, The Sapphires could very well become a sleeper hit just as long as enough people hear about it through the grapevine.

Director: Wayne Blair
Writer: Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, based on the play “The Sapphires” written by Briggs
Notable Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell