Loosely based on the real-life singing group (and written by the lead singer’s son), The Sapphires follows four musical Koori women- three sisters and their cousin- who tour Vietnam in 1968 to perform for American troops. They are accompanied by their drunken manager, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who is generally useless but seriously believes in their talent. While traveling the young women experience various ups and downs: the oldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), fights to protect everyone else in an unfriendly environment; her sister Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) embarks on an affair with a handsome soldier; Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest, suddenly finds herself in the spotlight due to her strong singing voice; and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), struggles with her conflicting identities as an Aboriginal woman who was forcibly raised in white society due to Australia’s aggressive anti-aboriginal policies.
With a fun, soulful soundtrack and a really likable cast, The Sapphires is a darned enjoyable musical that also offers a glimpse into a specific historical moment that I admittedly know little about. It is made clear early on how these girls have grown up: as Koori in a country that resents their people so much that the government sought to eradicate them through forced indoctrination and child-stealing (of course, to an American this does sound familiar). Gail and her sisters are strong-willed, incredibly motivated, and fiercely loyal to their family and community. They take a stand against the racist rules of their country by refusing to be ignored, and their efforts to be heard are rewarded with a terrifying but significant opportunity to perform for huge crowds in Vietnam. What’s interesting about this movie is that, while the protagonists’ struggle against prejudice and hatred is of course a major factor, the story never leans on it as a defining plot point. This is about individuals whose Koori background is integral to their identity but not their defining feature, resulting in a multi-layered and often lighthearted script that explores how these women react and adapt to their unique situation.
While I think in many ways this is History Lite, I was so charmed by The Sapphires that I didn’t really care. It balances humor and romance (led by Dave and Gail’s adorable interactions) along with tragedy and social commentary, peppered heavily with excellent musical sequences. I loved the cast, especially O’Dowd and Mailman in the leads. It’s a little cheesy at times and seems so intent on keeping things upbeat that the more seriously emotional points aren’t always effective, but I did enjoy myself immensely. And now I’m encouraged to learn more about this moment in Australia’s history, and indeed more about USO performers in the Vietnam War. Yay learning!
Pair This Movie With: Another musical about a girl group, perhaps? I still haven’t seen it but I imagine Dreamgirls might fit. Or maybe Linda Linda Linda. Alternatively, there’s The Boat That Rocked for another look at a real life rock music thing in the 60’s, but with mostly white British dudes. And Chris O’Dowd again.