Susan Granger's review of 'The Sapphires'
Published 10:40 am, Sunday, April 14, 2013
Back in the 1960s, four smart, vivacious young Australian Aboriginal women -- Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) -- launched their professional music career singing for enthusiastic U.S. troops in Vietnam. Guided by an R&B-loving Irish musician, they transformed themselves into The Sapphires, a sizzling soul quartet, coming-of-age in a war zone and liberating themselves from the racism of mid-20th century Australian society, which didn't grant full citizenship to Aborigines until 1968.
Their story begins 10 years earlier as the Cummeragunja Songbirds, as they called themselves, from a remote mission located near the New South Wales/Victorian border, perform for their families. That was back in the time when 100,000 Aboriginal children became known as the Stolen Generation because the government forcibly removed them from their families, sending them to be educated separately; that's what happened to their mixed-race cousin Kay, who was raised by a Caucasian family. (If you're curious about that era, see "Rabbit Proof Fence.") Problem is: the Merle Haggard/country & western harmony that the indigenous girls sang in local Outback pubs wasn't popular at the time -- and the townspeople were bigoted against them because of their skin color. Realizing their potential, an alcoholic Irish keyboard player, Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd from "Bridesmaids"), becomes their manager and turns them into Australia's answer to The Supremes. Touring in Southeast Asia, a love relationship between Dave and Gail, the protective older sister, develops. Kay takes up with an American pilot, while ambitious, lead singer Julie and lustful Cynthia have their own romantic subplots.
Based on the real-life experiences of Naomi Mayers, Beverley Briggs, Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, their story was first dramatized on stage by Aboriginal writer/director Tony Briggs, whose mother was the youngest member of the group. Briggs and Keith Thompson developed the sketchy, simplistic screenplay, which is lightheartedly directed by first-time filmmaker Wayne Blair with shimmering photography by Warwick Thornton.
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On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "The Sapphires" is a singin', swingin', sparkly 7, a sentimental, feel-good crowd-pleaser.