The Sapphires shines as an inspirational, feel-good musical

Published 11:59 am Saturday, March 23, 2013

by Lauren Bradshaw

The Sapphires is the true story of an Aboriginal singing group striving for fame and recognition in 1960s Australia; think of it as Australia’s answer to Dreamgirls (but with much more heart and humor). Transformed from stage to screen by director Wayne Blair, The Sapphires sheds light on a little known, yet historically significant period in Australian history concerning the racial prejudices faced by Aborigines.

However, even with a heavy theme the film is not a drama; in fact, many of the plot points are just as funny as they are heartfelt. The inspirational storyline, along with such entertaining song and dance numbers as “Heard it through the Grapevine” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”, proves The Sapphires is the definition of a feel-good movie.

The film opens on four young Aborigine girls singing atop a makeshift stage. The quartet consists of the McCrae sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). However, before the ensemble are able to finish their song, government officials swoop into the community and abduct Kay and other fair-skinned Aborigine children. During this dark period in Australia’s history, the government established laws that allowed officials to forcibly remove fair-skinned Aborigine children from their families and place them in government-run institutions. There they were taught “white ways” and were only allowed to visit their families in extreme cases, if at all; these children, along with many like them, would later be known as the “Stolen Generations”.

Cut to ten years later, the sisters (sans Kay) enter an amateur singing contest to show off their talents and earn money. Although the all-white audience seems unimpressed by their act, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), the contest’s emcee, recognizes the sisters’ potential and signs on as their manager. He persuades the girls to drop their country twang and adopt the music of Motown. After many days working on their new soulful sound (complete with hilarious rehearsal scenes), the group discovers an opportunity to make great money by performing for the troops fighting in the Vietnam War. The girls (and Lovelace) must convince their parents to let them leave Australia and also convince Kay to leave her “new” life behind and reconnect with the group. Through their trials and tribulations in a hostile, war-torn environment, the girls learn about themselves, gain confidence, and find love.

Of course, the plotline is at times cheesy and fairly predictable (as are many movies about singing groups’ rise to fame). However, where The Sapphires truly excels is inserting the audience into the environment of 1960s Australia and Southeast Asia, allowing you to empathize with the characters’ personal struggles as much as you celebrate their successes. The incredibly talented cast, including O’Dowd in his most delightful role yet, is the heart and soul of the film. While the chemistry between Mailman and O’Dowd is lacking, the bond between the sisters provides the film’s most charming qualities.

Through song, dance, and romance The Sapphires proves it is not only a feel-good musical, but is also a much-needed history lesson about the Stolen Generations and the racial struggles Aborigines faced in Australia.

My Score: B+

**For other great movies featuring this topic, check out Rabbit-Proof Fence (starring Kenneth Branagh) and Baz Luhrman’s Australia (starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman).