‘The Sapphires’ Chronicles 4 Australian Singers in the 1960s
“The Sapphires” tells the story of an all-female singing quartet on the way to stardom in the 1960s. As is usual in such tales, the group, known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds before their gemological rechristening, faces its share of obstacles, but in spite of internal disharmony and tough circumstances, the singers’ voices rarely falter.
The movie itself, directed by Wayne Blair from a script by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, is sort of the opposite — a solid, stirring song sung with more sincerity than polish. (It is inspired by a true story; one of the real Sapphires, Beverley Briggs, is Mr. Briggs’s mother.) But the raggedness of “The Sapphires” can’t be separated from its exuberant charm. Like the Sapphires themselves, the film is determined to muscle its way into your heart, which would have to be a lump of gristle to resist it.
Three of the four singers — Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who are sisters — live on a dusty reservation in the Australian outback, members of that country’s despised and oppressed Aboriginal population. Traveling into town to perform at a talent competition, they are greeted with racist taunts and denied the victory that they have obviously earned. But they do catch the bleary eye of Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), an itinerant Irish promoter whose great passions in life are liquor and American popular music, especially R&B.
At that point the Sapphires’ repertory tends more toward Merle Haggard than Aretha Franklin, and it falls to Dave to persuade them that their true musical affinity, as women who identify themselves as black, is with African-American artists on the other side of the world. This is somewhat opportunistic on Dave’s part — he sees a lucrative future for the girls entertaining the “soul brothers” serving in Vietnam — but also a sharp historical insight. The local discrimination that the Sapphires suffer is part of a global pattern, and we see their experiences reflected in footage of American racial turmoil and of black pop-culture heroes like Muhammad Ali.
On their way to Vietnam the women and their manager stop in Melbourne to collect a fourth Sapphire, Kay (Shari Sebbens), an Aborigine who was a victim of the Australian government’s forced adoption policy. This shockingly cruel practice — the subject of Phillip Noyce’s wonderful 2002 movie, “Rabbit-Proof Fence” — took Aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in boarding schools or with white families. (These officially sanctioned kidnappings continued into the 1970s; the Australian government apologized for them this week, reiterating a broader apology issued in 2008.) Kay, painfully confused about her identity, must also confront Gail’s bitter accusations of betrayal. Does Kay think she’s better than the others because of her lighter skin and relatively privileged upbringing?
In one of his music lessons Dave explains that while country music is based on the embrace of misfortune, soul defiantly insists on hope in the face of misery. And it is true that the genius of Memphis and Motown in the 1960s lay precisely in its alchemical transmutation of specific woe into universal joy. In a similar spirit “The Sapphires” turns a heavy load of personal and political trouble — war, bigotry, alcoholism, family breakdown — into bouncy, spirited entertainment.
The music certainly helps: energetic renditions of classics like “What a Man” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” as well as original versions of radio hits by Creedence Clearwater Revival and Sam & Dave. But the personalities of the Sapphires themselves carry the movie.
The story is hectic, sometimes to the point of chaos, and the characters are broadly drawn — Gail is bossy, Cynthia is boy crazy, while Julie, the youngest and the mother of a baby, possesses the biggest talent — but the performances are funny and full of credible emotion. Mr. O’Dowd, an easygoing comic actor (as seen in “Bridesmaids” and “This Is 40”), seems happy to be along for the ride, and there is no good reason to feel otherwise.