Editor’s Note: Allison’s review originally ran during the film’s premiere at last year’s AFI Film Fest, but we’re re-running it as the movie opens in limited release this week.
The music industry is a brutal landscape scattered with broken dreams and unrecognized talent, but when you take this landscape and add to it racism and war, the stakes are set even higher. Based on a true story (and adapted from the stage play of the same name), The Sapphires is not simply another tale about a girl group trying to make it, it is about a family fighting for a better life for themselves while at the same time coming to terms with their painful past. In 1950s, the Aboriginal population of Australia was considered “not human” and ignored by society until the government began raiding these small communities and stealing their fair-skinned children to pass them off as white. Known as the “stolen generation,” these children were ripped away from their families and traditions to instead be taught “white ways” in an attempt to make them “acceptable” to society.
Ten years later, we find the girls who were left behind attempting to realize their dream of becoming famous singers while also being forced to deal with a good dose of racism along the way. However, the girls, played with equal parts brass and charisma by Deborah Maliman as eldest sister Gail, Jessica Mauboy as golden-voiced Julie, and Miranda Tapsell as flirtatious Cynthia, never balk at the insensitive comments thrown their way. After a talent show gone awry, the trio is “discovered” by the show’s charming (albeit slightly intoxicated) MC, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who agrees to manage the group and get them to an audition in Melbourne for a spot entertaining the U.S. troops in Vietnam.
A stop in Melbourne presents the girls with an opportunity to reconnect with the fourth member of their group, their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who was taken from their family when they were just young girls, leaving bitter feelings between the three who felt abandoned and Kay, who clearly feels lost and disconnected. Despite the potentially volatile situation reuniting this group could present, Dave jumps in headfirst, driven by his belief in the girls’ talent (and their potential to get his fledgling music career back off the ground). After a spine-tingling and toe-tapping turn at the audition for proves they definitely have what it takes, the girls (and Dave) find themselves on their way to Vietnam to chase down fame and fortune, but also discover some hard truths about the world and, almost more importantly, some hard truths about one another.
Written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (the son of the real life “Julie,” Laurel Robinson), the narrative is infused with an inherent sense of honesty and heart that could only come from someone directly related to the story. All four girls turn in impressive performances that showcase not only their vocal talents, but also their ability to connect with one another and the audience, but it is O’Dowd who truly shines here making drunk Dave charming, funny, and honest.
The Sapphires does not gloss over the truth of the group’s situation by reminding viewers they are in a war zone and never shying away from the conflicts these four inevitably face as they work to become a family once again, but does so in a way that is both entertaining and heartwarming, an impressive feat for a story set in the middle of a war and family turmoil. The music is certainly a highlight (particularly when Dave is teaching the girls the difference between country western music and soul music), but it is the performances and inspiring story that truly make The Sapphires a rare gem of a film.
The Upside: A fully realized and layered story that delivers both humor and compassion, fantastic music that truly takes you back to that point in time, and an unforgettable performance from O’Dowd that proves he can deftly deliver the heart as much as the laughs.
The Downside: The real life footage interspersed throughout the narrative was a bit unnecessary in driving home the point of realism when the cast’s performances were able to convey that idea handily.
On the Side: Mailman (who plays Gail here) played Cynthia in the stage play of The Sapphires and Mauboy (Julie) is featured on the film’s soundtrack in ten of its sixteen tracks and co-wrote the single “Gotcha” along with Ilan Kidron and Louis Schoorl.
For more AFI FEST 2012 coverage, keep it locked right here at Film School Rejects.