In 1967, the Australian government classified the land’s native Aboriginal tribes as “Flora and Fauna.” To help the indigenous people, the government took to inspecting Aboriginal settlements, looking for fair-skinned children. Such children were taken from their tribe and families and sent to a special school, where they were taught to pass as white and to abandon their culture.
Because of these laws, the Cummeraganja Songbirds, an aboriginal country act, has a hard time winning local singing competitions. The trio is a sister act pairing commanding eldest Gail (Deborah Mailman: Offspring) on lead vocals and boy-crazy Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell: Magical Tales) on harmonies. Baby Julie (Jessica Mauboy: The X Factor) fights to be included.
While drawing the ire of the white crowd, The Songbirds catch the eye of contest MC Dave (Chris O’Dowd: This is 40), who convinces the women that if they want success, they’ll have to abandon Merle Haggard songs and embrace soul. They may also have to leave home to find an audience.
They find a fourth singer in Melbourne in the girls’ cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens: Redfern Now). Kay was taken from the Cummeraganja settlement as a fair-skinned child. Gail is angry that Kay has successfully assimilated into white culture, while Kay resents having to prove her ethnicity to her darker-skinned cousins.
Renamed The Sapphires, the girls audition for the one sponsor that will have them: The U.S. Military. They’re booked in Vietnam to give weary soldiers a reprieve of glamour and soul.
Will the girls finally find the success they so richly deserve? Will Gail and Kay resist the urge to tear each other apart? Will The Sapphires survive a war zone?
Based on a true story — co-written by the real-life Julie’s son Tony Briggs — The Sapphires is a toe-tapping story of breaking barriers and following your dreams. The film gives a voice to a people American audiences rarely see.
The music is great; plot and pacing not so great. Is this a story of racial inequality or a tale of four women who get to taste fame? Unable to meld themes, director Wayne Blair (Lockie Leonard) jumps from one topic to another.
Three extraneous love stories are undeveloped, apparently included because male directors and writers think movies about women need love. I hoped these bright and talented women would ditch the boys and get back to singing the greatest soul hits of the 1960s.
While not a perfect film, The Sapphires is fantastic popcorn entertainment that will keep your toes tapping.