‘Sapphires’ is a love story with a lesson

Four smart, gutsy young Australian Aboriginal women become unlikely stars in the most unlikely of places, with the most unlikely of allies, in “The Sapphires”. – PHOTO/WEINSTEIN COMPANY

One of the most unexpected and intriguing films of the year thus far is "The Sapphires," an entertaining, heartwarming cinematic surprise from the Land Down Under.

Open in theaters today, "The Sapphires," directed by Wayne Blair, is inspired by a true story and based on the stage play "The Sapphires" by Tony Briggs. This compelling picture addresses the history and culture of the Aborigines, a people of whommany of us have very little knowledge.

On the Mission in rural Australia, we meet Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), three vivacious, talented and strong-willed sisters of Aboriginal descent. Gail, the eldest, is a true mother hen/control freak who compulsively looks after everyone but herself. Cynthia, the middle child, is a hopeless romantic and Julie, the youngest, while pretty and extremely talented, can be downright hard-headed. The girls are constantly squabbling, but come together like a choir of angels whenever they are singing.

One day the sisters go into town to enter a talent contest being held at a tattered little pub where Aboriginals, who are considered "Black," clearly are not welcome. Even so, they begin to sing a country and Western song, accompanied by the house pianist, a down-on-his-luck Irish fellow named Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd). Although they are far superior to the other contestants, the sisters do not win, and when Dave loudly protests, he is fired.

Now out of a job, on the streets and seemingly out of options, Dave is about to fade into the sunset when the ambitious Julie shows him an ad seeking singers to entertain the American troops in Vietnam. With nothing to lose and cash to be gained, Dave agrees to help the girls prepare for the audition, with one condition -– that they sing soul music, which is his passion, rather than country &and Western songs.

The girls agree, but there is still one more problem. While Gail and Cynthia are given permission to go with Dave, their parents say that Julie, who is too young, must remain at home. In need of another lead voice, the sisters go in search of their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who through no fault of her own has been at odds with Gail for years.

Kay used to live on the Mission with her cousins, where fair-skinned Aboriginal children were often taken away from their families, placed into white institutions and taught "the white way of life." Now part of what has come to be known as "The Lost Generation," Gail feels that Kay, who now lives as a white person in Australian society, has abandoned her Aboriginal heritage.  

Kay ultimately agrees to join her cousins, but then Julie, against their parents' wishes, sneaks away from home to audition with her big sisters. Now a unit of four and with Dave as their self-appointed musical director/manager, the girls, whom he has dubbed the Sapphires, are rapidly becoming a soul music phenomenon in the Motown/Stax tradition. With cute costumes, stylish steps and the sassy Julie out in front, the girls ace their audition and soon find themselves squarely in the middle of the Vietnam War. As if the culture shock weren't enough, it appears that Dave and Gail, an Irishman and an Aboriginal who are constantly bickering, are beginning to fall in love.

The engrossing screenplay by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, which draws a number of parallels between the African-American experience and the history of the Aborigines of Australia, features strong, extremely likable characters, and Deborah Mailman is superb as Gail, the bossy but benevolent big sister who was tied into everyone's feelings but her own. She shares a captivating chemistry with leading man O'Dowd, who gives an engaging performance as a cad who begins to care.

Perhaps what made the film the most captivating was the authentic, heartfelt direction of Wayne Blair, who is Aboriginal and was featured in the stage version of "The Sapphires." The music is front and center, and R&B fans will recognize and enjoy soul classics such as "Hold On, I'm Coming," "I'll Take You There," "Who's Loving You,' "Land of One Thousand Dances" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"

Filled with heart, humor and harsh reality, "The Sapphires" is a sweet love story that juxtaposes the horrors of war and racism with the jubilation and sensuality of soul music.

Celebrity soundbite: Director Wayne Blair on "The Sapphires'" commentary on racism and its impact on Aboriginal culture: "For Tony Briggs, one of the mission statements was to sort of remind people around the world and especially people in Australia of Australia's history, and Australia's history has been not the best, thus far. So it was just to say, 'This country is not all strawberries and cream. You still have the first nation's people living in this country as for the most part, second class citizens, and it's 2013. So we'd better get our act together.' But it's being accepted. We made a lot of money in Australia - a lot of people have seen the film. So it was great – just to get those stories out there."


Contact Entertainment Reporter Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or kroberts@phillytrib.com.

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