Film: The Sapphires (2012)
Cast includes: Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids), Deborah Mailman (Rabbit-Proof Fence), Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Director: Wayne Blair (Redfern Now)
Genre: Comedy | Light Drama | Music (103 minutes)
We first see Gail, Cynthia, Kay and Julie in 1958 when they're on a makeshift stage singing at a birthday party. They called themselves the Cummeragunja Songbirds because they live on the Cummeragunja Reservation in the Australian outback. By 1968, three of the Songbirds are still singing and hoping for some recognition... there's the talent contest in town... except Julie's only 17. "Julie, you ain't going, and that's the end of it." One act is worse than the next. Dave Lovelace, the MC can hardly stand it... except that he's burned a lot of bridges and probably has nowhere else to go. Julie does make it at the last minute and the Songbirds, singing "Today I Started Loving You Again," are clearly the best act in the contest. "Well, that wasn't terrible," says Dave. But Dave and the Aborigines girls are practically run out of the lily-white town. Meanwhile, Julie's seen an ad, seeking singers and dancers to go to Vietnam and entertain the troops... and they could use a piano playing manager. Dave thinks their chances of getting accepted are pretty slim... not because they're black, but because they're not black enough. "You're black and you're singing country and western music. It's just wrong." "Well what do you think we should sing?" asks Julie. "If you wanna perform for the brothers in Vietnam, you've gotta give um soul."
"What would this dopy white fella know about soul music?" scoffs Gail. "Sister, my blood runs negro," declares Dave. When Julie's mom says she can't go, they decide they need their cousin, Kay. "Kay's the one who was stolen." Back in 58, the authorities thought Kay was light skinned enough to pass for white, so they stole her. Ten years later, Kay is still conflicted about her black roots. Meanwhile, Dave struggles to inspire the gals to sing soul... and "sing blacker." Country and western and soul are both about loss, he explains. The difference is that with soul, you want it back... "So every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who's grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what's been taken from her." The foursome is good enough to get to Saigon, but they're going to need a name people can pronounce. "The Sapphires" it is.
Inspired by a true story, the true-life son of one of the girls collaborated on the story. The practice of abducting light-skinned Aboriginal children continued into the 1970s. While racism in Australia was different than in America, it was certainly just as ugly. The film addresses many issues head on, but it never feels heavy. (If you're seeking serious social commentary, you should see Rabbit-Proof Fence.) Naturally, a lot of the story development is predictable... the racial issues, the personality tensions, the rough start, the dangers of the war zone... but with a wonderful soundtrack, it's a joy ride from beginning to end. The look and feel of the movie is a trip down memory lane for many. This is an Australian film with mostly Australian filmmakers and actors... the notable exception is Chris O'Dowd, who plays an endearing Dave Lovelace. News footage is sprinkled throughout. Muhammad Ali, for example, commenting on Vietnam... "I'm fighting to free here, and my mama ain't free in Louisville."
3 popped kernels (Scale: 0-4)
Four Aboriginal women enlist a white piano player/manager to help them sing soul and get a job entertaining troops in Vietnam
Rated: PG-13 (Language)
Audience: Young adults & Grown-ups
Distribution: Mainstream wide release
Tempo: Zips right along
Visual Style: Unvarnished realism
Character Development: Engaging
Language: True to life
Social Significance: Pure entertainment & Thought provoking
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