August 2, 2013
Straight up - The Sapphires is a good movie. Well worth recommending.
With all the potential hurdles, it was a surprise. First-time feature director. First time feature writer. Not-so glamorous stars. Schmaltzy plot based on a true story. Foreign. Australian. Aboriginal. About their racism. About our Vietnam War.
None of the above ingredients is an audience buzz-kill; they are simply hitches for attracting a wide American turnout. Although, take note, Harvey and Bobby picked it up for U.S. distribution - the Weinsteins are known to be persnickety. And seven audience awards at film festivals add additional clues for your potential enjoyment. Its Cannes Film Festival audience gave it a ten minute standing ovation.
Basically, back in the 60's, four gifted Aussie singers auditioned and were hired by the U.S. military to entertain the troops in Vietnam. And away they went. That's it. That is the movie.
Now for more interesting stuff. The story is told by an Aboriginal writer, an Aboriginal director, an Aboriginal Cinematographer and sung by Aboriginal girls.
Tony Briggs, whose mother and aunt (photo on right) and two cousins were the original four Sapphires, scribed his mom's story for the stage and later converted it to film (with Keith Thompson). Director Wayne Blair and actress Deborah Mailman (Gail) originally appeared in Brigg's theater production.
Hovering over the happy harmonious childhood of three of the four cousins was the abduction of Kay (Shari Stebbens) - yanked from her indigenous family to live in the fair skinned milieu as a born-again-white-kid. This national policy of forced assimilation made Kay one of Australia's Stolen Generation. (The real-life separation led to the suicide of her mother, which is not part of the movie.)
In fact, only one year earlier (1968) Aborigines were granted citizenship rights. Before that, they were categorized as "flora and fauna."
In Vietnam, the black Australian story merges with the black American struggle, interweaving their parallel 1960's battles for equal rights. Via Down Under television, news of Martin Luther King's life and death spread the word of the compatible conflict. Eventually the two worlds converged at the war zone concerts where soldiers were mostly African American. The Sapphires' soul music uplifted, distracted and jubilated our troops.
Growing up, the cousins crooned for family gatherings - mostly with Australian traditional songs and American country. When Irishman Chris O'Dowd (as Dave, the manager - formerly of the Bridesmaids) enters the mix, he diverts the teens' twangs to na na na na.
Watching the quartet sing - a la Supremes - black 60's hits is worth the price of the ticket: "Land of a Thousand Dances," "Young Girls", "What a Man", "Grapevine" and "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch."
As with all movies boasting "based on a true story," the audience always expects to be manipulated for dramatic effect, cinematic convenience and/or budget restrictions. And we were.
There was no carousing Irish rake to discover, mentor or tutor the teens. On their own, the girls had the grit to buck the bigotry and the pluck to ply the system. They shook, rattled and rolled their own route to success.
Tony Briggs left out much of the Aboriginal maternal anguish and Vietnam's gore of war to make a film that celebrates Australia's Outback and America's Motown. And he laced together the lives of the four real women so that no one is indelibly identifiable, but together, each represents his indomitable family - a viable formula for telling "true" stories about loved ones without compromising any familial amity.
Every step of the process was energized by remarkable talent, dedication, determination and contagious zeal.
"This film has a heart, a sense of joy, and a sense of you can be who you want to be," said director Blair. "And you'd have a little laugh, and shed a tear and you'd walk out feeling human again."
Good Extras are the best reason to buy-to-own your DVDs and these deliver.
Well, the first segment, not so much. Too much about too little. But you do get to hear from cast and crew.
We meet the writer and the director, and learn to expect more outstanding creative work from both men. Blair appeared in Brigg's stage play in O'Dowd's role, which was originally designated for an Australian.
Besides Blair's acting and directing credentials - in shorts and television - he writes, plays rugby, sings and dances! Variety magazine has listed Wayne Blair as one of ten top directors to watch in 2013. Stay tuned.
But don't skip segment 2.
In the "Interview with the Original Sapphires," author/son Tony joins his mom, auntie, and two cousins to reminisce.
While the movie closes with an update of the four women, it is this interview that gives the movie its happy ending - to both the real story and the movie - proof that all the women returned home to reunite with their families and to serve their community with distinguished careers.
Period photos accompany the segment, revealing the wow that made the Sapphires even more appealing to American soldiers.
The soul sisters obviously relished revisiting their past, but it is the promise of future recollections that has viewers hoping for more.
In "The music of the Sapphires with Jessica Mauboy," she reexamines the play list and performances by the young women.
Each was cast because of their experience as trained actors who could sing - except Jessica (Julie) who is an accomplished singer who discovered acting.
Move over Nicole and Naomi. Make room for four more formidable female gems.
Studio: Anchor Bay
Director: Wayne Blair
Cast: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Length: 99 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English SDH and Spanish