The Sapphires: Australia’s answer to The Supremes

Last Thursday I had the good fortune to attend the Australian red carpet premiere of the new Australian film, The Sapphires, at the opening night gala of the Melbourne International Film Festival. Aside from minor damage done to my liver at the after party (hence the delay in blogging the event), it was a fantastic night and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film.

The Sapphires, which screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival to a ten-minute standing ovation, is the first feature from aboriginal director, Wayne Blaire. The film is based on the true story of four aboriginal sisters (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbens) who form a soul group in the 1960s to entertain US troops in Vietnam. Managed by Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a charismatic and drunken Irishman, the group escape the restrictions that race places on them in 1960s Australia to become hugely popular with African American troops in Vietnam.

Based on my experiences of the last Australian musical feature I had seen, Bran Nue Dae (also about racism in 1960s Oz), I had expected this film to be poorly written, acted and directed. I wasn’t totally off the mark – the acting in The Sapphires is merely adequate (Mailman and O’Dowd are exceptions); the directing tends to lack creative flair; and it is impossible to ignore the fact that the plot lacks tension of any kind (every time a dramatic problem arises, it is immediately resolved in the subsequent scene, thereby negating the movie’s narrative force). However, The Sapphires generates enough positivity and goodwill around its central characters that these problems seem to dissipate into nothingness while watching the film.

As The Sapphires sing their way through the film, rattling off a huge number of classic soul hits, it is impossible to find time to be bored. This is in part due to a brief running time (which I do not believe is the 104 minutes indicated on IMDB) and the incredible comedic performance delivered by O’Dowd. O’Dowd, best known for his work in Bridesmaids and The IT Crowd carries the film with impeccable comic timing and expert delivery. Indeed, whenever O’Dowd is not on screen it becomes patently obvious that the film begins to sag under its own weight. Thankfully, such moments are relatively brief.

Of course, one of the reasons that this film is generating as much of a positive response as it is, is the fact that the script deals with the disenfranchisement of aboriginal people in Australia in a manner that addresses the problems of the past while also providing a message of hope for the future. This is particularly important in Australia obviously, where the anger and resentments over past mistakes (and their ongoing consequences) are still patently obvious. Many recent and frequently incredible films have presented a more severe, angry and horrifying vision of the aboriginal experience in Australian history (The Proposition, The Tracker, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Samson and Delilah). Perhaps The Sapphires can be viewed as a response to these narratives, one that enables aboriginal people to begin to reclaim what was long ago taken from them.

While I suspect that the positivity that this film radiates might have been at least partly drawn from the energy of an enthusiastic crowd on opening night – filled with Australian and international celebrities (including the majority of the cast), politicians, and people excited by what the film symbolises more than by the film itself – for the moment I’ll say that The Sapphires was a great way to start my filmic marathon at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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