It’s actually quite funny, but the one film that kept popping into my head as I watched The Sapphires was A League of Their Own. No, they don’t tell the same story, but they do have several narrative and thematic similarities. Both are historical fictions about groups of women who are clearly good at what they do and qualified to compete professionally but are tested by prejudice and have to fight to earn the public’s respect. Both take place during a war, and both involve a group of women being managed by a drunken shell of a man who’s slowly but surely redeemed by being in their lives. Both also include infighting, sibling rivalry, and even a certain amount of politics. And then there’s the performing; while A League of Their Own focused on games of baseball, The Sapphires focuses on singing.
In case you’re wondering, no, The Sapphires is not about the 1960s American pop ensemble known for their song “Who Do You Love.” It’s an adaptation of the 2004 Australian stage play by Tony Briggs, which tells the story of four Aboriginal women who, in 1968, form a girl group and perform in Vietnam during the war. Briggs was inspired by the true story of his mother, her sister, and their two cousins, who toured Vietnam as singers. According to a 2010 article by online journalist Steve Dow, racism forced two of them to sleep on the very stage they were to perform on, which was nearly bombed during an attack. As of today, according to a title card shown right before the end credits, the four women remain active community leaders seeking to improve the status of Aborigines, especially in the areas of health and education.
The film, adapted in part by Briggs, has all the reliable elements of a backstage drama, not the least of which is the convention that the performers must endure hardships in order to achieve fame and/or respect. However, there’s also a great deal of humor, which doesn’t downplay the seriousness of the era it takes place in but certainly prevents the film from becoming too solemn. It helps that the soundtrack is an infectious gathering of soulful Motown hits, including “Soul Man,” “I’ll Take You There,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” It’s not a musical in the proper sense of the word; the characters don’t pause in the middle of the story and break into song. Nevertheless, they sing when they’re up on stage, and a few of their performances are filmed as if they were musical numbers.
We begin with three Aboriginal sisters – Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie McCrae (Jessica Mauboy) – hurrying from their rural farmhouse in The Mission to a small-town dive where a country and western music contest is being held. Despite their obvious talent, they can’t win the approval of the white locals, who continue to look down on Aborigines. The only one impressed by their sound is the contest’s announcer, an Irishman named David Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). Despite being a down-on-his-luck alcoholic, he has an ear for music and is determined to turn the sisters into a famous singing act. Of course, there will need to be a few changes. First, they must switch from country to soul, which is more popular. Second, Julie rather than Gail must become the lead singer, as the former’s voice is stronger. Third, they must take on a fourth member. Here enters their estranged cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), a half-Aborigine who, under Australian law, was taken as a child and brainwashed into racism.
When it’s discovered that singers are needed to perform in Vietnam for American troops, Dave and the McCrae girls, who dub themselves The Sapphires, jump at the opportunity. And so begins their musical journey through a dangerous, war-torn country. All the usual backstage dramas accompany them. Julie, for one thing, is the youngest of the group and a single mother. Cynthia cannot get over being left at the altar, and she still wears the ring she was given. Gail, the oldest, is protective to a fault; she’s bossy, combative, and continues to harbor deep emotional scars. She spars with Kay, whom she hasn’t forgiven for “turning white,” and with Dave, who has the best of intentions but is also a bit reckless. Naturally, there will also be romances, none more prominent (or expected) than that between Gail and Dave.
The film is intentionally designed to be a crowd-pleaser, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Nevertheless, you will be required to blindly accept a number of conventions we’ve all grown accustomed to, especially in regards to the final act, which is about as tidy as it can be. I would wager that most audiences would be willing to take that step. And why not? The hope of happily ever after, even in a story that takes place during the social and political upheaval of the 1960s, seems just as healthy to me as a yearning for hard-edged realism. We need movies like this, not only because they’re entertaining but also because they’re inspirational. If The Sapphires seems too much like a fantasy, just know that movies like it keep the industry alive, no matter what part of the world you hail from.
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The Weinstein Company