Director: Wayne Blair Writer: Tony Briggs, Keith Thompson Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy Runtime: 103 min
A film that includes the preface “inspired by a true story” inhabits a curious space between fact and fiction. The Sapphires presents a look at a serious historical issue of which many may not be aware, drawing an audience in with a stimulating story with which it is easy to engage. The film relates the story of four Aboriginal Australian girls who are selected to perform for troops fighting in Vietnam in 1968. The soul group is forced to confront racism and personal adversary as they make a journey towards war as well as their own self-discovery.
Co-writer Tony Briggs initially adapted the story of his mother, a member of the real Sapphires, into a fictionalized play for the stage in 2004. As the work transitioned into film, it was able to retain the contagious energy and joyful spirit of the original. It is essential that the characters at the heart of such a film are relatable, and The Sapphires remain likeable in spite of, or perhaps due to, their individual quirks and flaws. Each character is distinct and entertaining, and any moments of weak acting are easily forgiven due to the charm and engaging nature of the individuals. Also worth mention is Chris O’Dowd for his amusing turn as The Sapphires’ unlikely yet highly influential manager. The music performed by the undeniably talented actresses ranges from native folk, to country western, to soul, and all is presented dynamically regardless of genre.
Although the film was fun to watch and full of infectious music and energy, there were moments during which I wished that it took its subject matter a little more seriously. Heavy issues such as the racist problem in Australia, of which I was previously unaware, and the Vietnam War open up opportunity for an influential and thought provoking portrayal. A comparison to the 2006 film Dreamgirls is inevitable. Here, a trio of talented young African American girls struggle against racism and personal adversary to cross over from their niche market to pop superstardom. When they fail, the audience is able to empathize, and when they triumph, we celebrate along with them. Dreamgirls, although enjoyable to watch and full of catchy tunes, does not depict the rise to fame as easy or painless, and deals with its serious issues with appropriate gravity.
The Sapphires, in contrast, glosses over many issues in order to maintain its decidedly more buoyant tone. The girls are briefly persecuted in a music competition early in the film, but a brief scene such as this one does not properly relay the depth of their struggle. Although one can imagine that the real Sapphires were forced to face racism, fight their way to the top, and overcome obstacles, here, their rise to fame simply seems a bit too easy. The audience is able to root for these likable and talented girls; however, our celebration would be all the more triumphant if more obstacles had been presented for them to overcome. A lighter tone is a legitimate artistic decision, however, and adds to the fun of this film.
The Sapphires takes a well-known and conventional movie trope and delivers a fresh perspective through its Australian setting and quirky characters. Focusing on the lighter side of a serious issue, the film nonetheless presents an unfortunate historical reality in an accessible manner while also delivering an engaging story and, frankly, a fun time.