Australian films lead the industry in one very important regard: tone. We may not make the biggest movies, or have been the first to establish certain techniques or stories, but we were and still are way ahead of Hollywood in making movies that hate their audience, in making blockbuster dramas ‘dark’. So when a story comes along about both the Vietnam war and the mistreatment of Aborigines at home it would be safe to assume that Zanex need be mixed in with the popcorn. Strangely then thanks to a few scattered soul numbers the darkness of The Sapphires is only skin deep, our industry perhaps learning how to handle large issues with something of a light touch.
The Sapphires will make you smile, but not a gaping, goofy grin like our only other output, the silly spoof. It’s comedy is smart, it stems from spending time with the characters and showing off their charms rather than any caustic scolding of the same. It is then a pretty laid back affair, one that sheds complexity of story in favour of these characters. The characters of which i speak though are four young aboriginal girls who grew up on Curramung- Cummarung- ah… A small indigenous compound out in the Aussie bush and the washed up Irish MC who discovers their talent for singing and shapes them into a world class soul band, or at least one good enough to partake in a USO tour.
The film paints its protagonists in pretty broad strokes but still does a nice job of both differentiating them from one another and defining them within their own stereotypes. A lot of the thanks for this is probably due to the actresses who portrayed them, who all do well at evoking both humor and humanity from their myriad moments in the sun. Somewhat funnily their acting talent seems inverse to their singing strength: Deborah Mailman has the weakest voice but the widest role while Jessica Mauboy leads on stage but gets a little lost whenever she is off of it. It is the Irish O’Dowd though that really ties the film together, ironically lending it a Aussie-larrikan’s touch.
If the film were simply their singing and his slapstick though that wouldn’t be all that special; it’s the who and when that makes it special. Everyone knows that racial disparity was an issue in the past ( as it still is now) and that the sixties was a time when this conflict came to the forefront of social consciousness but even us here in Australia know that mostly because of what occurred in America. So it is a smart move on behalf of the scriptwriter to hitch our local issue onto the era’s more famous fight for rights, the African American front.
Martin Luther King, The Black Panthers and many other US-centric callouts are made alongside those to the Stolen Generation, while Aboriginal troops are similarly sectioned off with African American Army men and Aboriginal women chosen to sing African-American soul songs. This meshing of racial experience reduces the myopic feel inherent to most of the movies we make on the issue; it’s not, as O’Dowd’s manager puts it, a wailing woe is me like Country, but a call to action, a struggling against the sorrow like all good soul music. It’s one thing to say that, but another altogether to do it, though that is what The Sapphires does.
Is it a revolutionary movie though in any sense besides the literal? No, not at all. The short vignettes of story that we are presented with are shallow, standard fare for a melodrama or musical and they’re not even handled in a particularly stand out way; what they are though is enjoyable, tropes for a good reason and thus i have only slight issue with their implementation here. Music and War have always worked for me as great catalysts for drama – set any scene in a trench or to a particularly potent pop-song and it will work for me fivefold – and as this film has both in spades it could render a sub-par story stellar, let alone a strong but stumbling one like this. So in short, this film has mercy on its audience; it let’s them laugh loudly and cry in a cathartic way, it works as an escape and on this prison colony that is a pretty special thing.