Like many other indigenous people, the Aboriginals of Australia saw colonizers steal their land and attempt to destroy their way of life and culture. One of the more insidious ways invaders have attempted to carry out cultural genocide has been to steal the children of indigenous people in order to civilize them. In Canada and the U.S. we had the residential schools where we beat the “Indian” out of children in an attempt to make them white. In Australia Aboriginal children who could pass for white were taken from their families and placed in white institutions cutting them off from their communities and destroying connections to their history and culture.
Somehow, in spite of the of the best efforts of their colonial masters, Native peoples in most parts of the world have survived and managed to retain their cultural identity. They have even regained enough strength to begin telling the stories of the people who lived through the bad times. Not all of the stories have had happy endings, but neither have all the stories had sad endings. In fact some of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. One of those stories is the tale of four young Aboriginal women who for a year, 1968, were a singing group who performed American soul and R&B music for troops in Viet Nam. Written by Tony Blair, son of one of the woman in the group, The Sapphires was first a stage play and then a movie and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Miramax Films.
While the majority of the movie is set in 1968, the year The Sapphires were performing, the movie opens in 1958. Four little girls are preparing to sing for their friends and family on the back of a flat bed truck. In the middle of the performance they are interrupted by an invasion of white men in cars come to steal any “white” looking children. The children flee into the woods, the bigger ones helping the little ones, in an attempt to escape. The movie then jumps ahead ten years to three young Aboriginal women leaving their “settlement” (the Australian equivalent of a reservation) to go into a white town to enter a talent contest run by the very hung over, down on his luck, talent scout/music lover/want a be manager, Dave Lovelace. (Chris O’Dowd)
Even in his rather fragile state Lovelace can see Gail, (Deborah Mailman) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) are obviously the class of the contest. In fact he even manages to stir from his alcoholic stupor enough to provide them with piano accompaniment for their performance. Although they are much better than anyone else in the contest, the three lose. Of course they had as much chance of winning as The Supremes would have had at a contest run by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Lovelace and they are pretty much kicked out when the contest is over.
However, Cynthia convinces Lovelace to help them respond to an audition notice requesting entertainers for American troops in Viet Nam. He does so, but only on the condition they stop singing Merle Haggard songs and start singing soul music. He might be a pasty faced white guy from Melbourne, but he’s got the blood of a soul musician floating in his veins. After he manages to convince their family to let him take the girls to the audition, and maybe Viet Nam, the scene shifts to Melbourne where it takes place and the trio expands to a quartet. Their cousin Kay, (Shari Sebbens) the fourth girl at the beginning of the movie singing with them, had been stolen by the government and placed in the white world and is now living in Melbourne. They reclaim her for the family and the singing group.
The movie follows the arc you’d expect. The girls experience success as performers in Viet Nam and start to play to larger and larger collections of troops. Of course it’s not all smooth sailing with Cynthia resenting her younger sister Julie being the centre of attention as the lead singer and acting out by drinking too much and trying to steal the spotlight. However, it’s Lovelace’s irresponsible behaviour and drinking which gets them into serious trouble. He drunkenly agrees to take the girls to a base close to enemy lines, but forgets to tell them they will have to make the trip without the military escort they’ve had previously.
Gail, the eldest, and thus responsible for the other three, had taken the longest to trust Lovelace. However, when she did start to trust him the two became, against her misgivings and better judgement, romantically involved. When she finds out what he did she’s furious with both herself and Lovelace. While they make the trip to the base safely enough it comes under attack while they are there. The girls are airlifted to safety, but as they lift off they see Lovelace go down. They arrive back in Saigon not knowing whether he’s alive or not, only to find out Martin Luther King has been assassinated.
The Sapphires is the type of movie that in the wrong hands could be maudlin and sentimental trash. Instead, we get a very realistic portrayal of four young women having the time of their lives in the middle of a horrible situation. At the same time it manages, without any overt politicalization, to show the damage done the Aboriginal people of Australia by the policy of taking their children away from them. With the character of Kay we see how these children became both alienated from their people while never really fitting into the “white” world. Putting up with having their land stolen and overt racism is bad enough, but to have your own children turned against you must have been the real knife in some people’s hearts.
In the role of Lovelace, O’Dowd continues to impress as an actor. He’s one of those people who have the wonderful ability to wear their heart’s on their sleeve without ever overplaying a scene. While a natural comic, he’s also able to communicate what hides behind his character’s bluff exterior and grins. Like his character, O’Dowd has soul, and it shines through in his entire performance. While the four women aren’t as experienced as O’Dowd, only Mailman has any real acting experience and this is Sebbens’ first movie, they all do wonderful jobs with their characters.
Each bring a level of credibility to their performances which helps make the movie a joy to watch. Mauboy is a professional singer and does all her own singing as the lead singer for the group Julie, but seeing her on screen she does such a good job in her role you think of her as an actor doing some singing, not a singer doing some acting. In spite of their inexperience, neither Tapsell and Sebbens are weak links. As the dispossessed Kay, Sebbens gives an especially moving and strong performance as she attempts to reclaim her heritage.
Seeing a movie like this at home on Blu-ray through a good home theatre system with 5.1 sound makes you appreciate the potency of the music all over again. The sound and visuals are as good you’ve come to expect from the technology, and thoroughly enhance the story. What’s nice, is unlike movies that try to compensate for weak spots in the script by turning it into spectacle through effects instead of telling the story, here the audio enhances the story and helps set the atmosphere.
The special features on this Blu-ray are much better than usual. They not only give you a chance to meet the actors and learn about how the movie was made, but also introduce us to the original Sapphires. After their tour of Viet Nam none of them continued to work as singers, although one was the first ever Aboriginal model in Australia for a while, instead they returned to their communities and worked tirelessly to help their own people. They are all still alive and the interviews with them in the special features are almost as interesting as the movie itself. They probably won’t make a sequel to The Sapphires, as their lives aren’t as glamourous now as they were for that one year, but the story of what they’ve done since is every bit as impressive.
The Sapphires is the story of four women who grabbed a moment and ran with it for all they were worth. It’s fun, sad and best of all, very real. For some reason the movie seems to have come and gone without much notice when it played in the theatres and it would be a shame if the same thing happened now that’s it out on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a wonderful movie filled with great performances and some of the best soul music to come out of the 1960s – what more could you ask for?