Movie Review - The Sapphires

Tory Kittles (left) and Shari Sebbens meet at
the pool of a Vietnam hotel in "The Sapphires"
This film is in the same vein as Sparkle (2012) and Dreamgirls (2006). It's about a R&B girl group in the 1960s. The difference is that this story is set in Australia and involves the "Stolen Generation." Until 1967, the native population of Australia, known as Aborigines, were denied citizenship and were segregated to reserves. The Aborigines were basically treated like the Native Americans in the United States but were looked at as African-Americans were in the U.S. south. Yet, there is a disconnect between the Aboriginal girls here and the identification with what African-Americans were experiencing and expressing at the time. This amazing film by Wayne Blair attempts to bridge that gap.

The first half of the film takes place in 1968 on the Cummeragunja Reserve. Four girls who are sisters and cousins to each other form a singing group. The four of them formed the group at around ten years of age but split up. A decade or so later, two of them, Gail and Cynthia go to a bar to compete in a talent competition. This incident starts the process of reuniting the girls.

Racism gets in their way, but the girls are discovered by Dave Lovelace, played by Chris O'Dowd (Bridesmaids and This is 40). He's a tall, scruffy, Irish immigrant who despite his disposition could be considered a blue-eyed soul man, even though his eyes might not actually be blue.

When he first meets the girls, he finds them singing country music. Dave immediately sees the cognitive dissonance of that. It's not that black people can't sing country. The girls sing 'Today I Started Loving You Again' by Merle Haggard and they sing it very well, but the sense is given that the girls weren't really exposed to traditional African-American music.

It's similar to the moment in The Bodyguard (1992) when Whitney Houston's character hears a country song by Dolly Parton and can't connect with it. She does embrace the song but by the end she makes it her own by performing it as a R&B track. I don't know too much about Aboriginal culture, but Blair makes the parallels between theirs and African-American culture that I see them as practically the same.

One of the big issues at play is one that was also addressed in The Bodyguard, that of interracial relations. Houston's character, a black singer, has a physical affair with Kevin Costner's character, a white man who heads her security. Here, O'Dowd's character Dave has an affair or at least a heavy flirtation with Gail, played by Deborah Mailman. The problem comes when Gail's cousin Kay, played by Shari Sebbens, joins the group.

While Gail has traditional, Aboriginal or African features like dark skin, a big nose and wide lips, Kay has traditional, Caucasian features like pale skin, a thin nose and skinny lips. As such, Kay becomes taken along with other Aboriginal children as part of the Stolen Generation. Kay is raised with a white family in Melbourne instead of her biological family. Gail is upset that as a result Kay is confusing her identity and thinks she's white and not Aboriginal.

The irony is lost on Gail that she was the one singing a country song not Kay. The irony is also lost on Gail that she's the one dating a white man, whereas Kay dates a black man. Kay falls for Robby, played by Tory Kittles, a black soldier serving in Vietnam who is absolutely gorgeous but who is a bit clumsy. Gail's problem with Kay might just be a problem within herself that she's projecting onto Kay. This might be indicative of how insidious the racial problems were and still are within and around black people.

The latter half of this film has the girls go to Vietnam to perform for the troops in Saigon or other areas. Blair always keeps an eye to the fear and horrors that were close by, but the girls try to focus on having fun with the men. It's perhaps metaphorical to what they were experiencing back in Australia. The horrors were more of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, which some would compare to war.

Like with Dreamgirls, what carries this film is the performances, particularly the song performances. Instead of Gail, Dave makes Julie, played by Jessica Mauboy, the lead singer. In reality, Mauboy is herself a lead singer. She's a recording artist with Sony Music Australia who was on Australian Idol. She's the equivalent of Beyoncé in Dreamgirls or more likely Jordin Sparks in Sparkle.

Despite being very beautiful, Mauboy's Julie doesn't really pursue any relationships with men. She's not like Cynthia, played by Miranda Tapsell, who actively avoids men. Of the four girls, Cynthia is a mother. She has a child, a son with a young man named Jimmy, played by Meyne Wyatt who's handsome but looks a little nerdy and who wants to marry her but she doesn't reciprocate.

These four girls are based on four, real-life women who hailed from down-under and sang in Vietnam all over. The man who is the real-life version of Cynthia's son is Tony Briggs. He wrote a successful play about his mom and this all-girl singing group. He then adapted that stage production into the screenplay for The Sapphires, co-written by Keith Thompson.

The end credits updates you on what the real-life women are doing now. The end credits also include two very catchy songs by Jessica Mauboy. The first is 'Get Used to Me,' which was co-written by Grammy-winner Diane Warren, and the second is my favorite called 'Gotcha.'

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.


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