'Sapphires' Shines

The Sapphires
(Australia, 99 min.)
Dir. Wayne Blair, Writ. Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs
Starring: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy,  Miranda Tapsell, Shari Sebbins.
Photo courtesy of eOne Films.
Everyone in need of a pick-me-up should run out to see The Sapphires. The Sapphires is the most dazzling, effervescently feel-good movie of the year. It’s a great crowd-pleaser full of heart and soul.

The Australian box-office smash is finally in Canadian theatres after a successful tour on the festival circuit last year. It was greeted with warm applause from audiences and did the same at the screening I caught on its opening day in Toronto. The Sapphires, inspired by a true story, is the kind of joyful moviegoing experience that should be embraced wherever it may travel.

North American audiences will no doubt recognize Bridesmaids funnyman Chris O’Dowd in the role of Dave, the unkempt drunkard who falls into the role of manager when a bona-fide music-biz smash walks into his Australian talent show. This singing sensation is a trio of sisters that forms a country-western group with an unpronounceable name. The girls—Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy—lose the contest even though they mop the floor with the competition. The judges and the frigid audience fail to warm to the girls’ mellow harmony because they don’t give a tune for what black Australians can do.

It’s 1968 when The Sapphires begins and Aboriginal Australians have yet to receive equal status recognition. They’re considered “flora and fauna” as the opening title cards suggest, so these singers face little chance of making it big Down Under. Fortunately, Dave sees in them the makings of the next big thing, so long as the girls change their tune.

Re-branded “The Sapphires” and joined by their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbins), the girls become a quartet of soul sisters akin to The Supremes. Dave makes The Sapphires an immediate international sensation, as the girls’ first gig is a tour performing for American troops in Vietnam.

Tensions arise in the group—don’t they always?—when Dave bumps Gail from lead and has baby sister Jules take the reign on vocals. Comparisons to Dreamgirls seem inevitable with this feisty tale of divas and the inner rivalry that fuels their talent, but The Sapphires is less the All About Eve retread of Dreamgirls (great as both films are) and more about how artists create a harmony using as the conflicts and emotions they encounter in everyday life. To sing is to bring to life, The Sapphires seems to say as the girls turn their poverty into melody and reach a note higher than one that they could have ever hit back home.

Although the sisters have the vocal chops to get them through their first audition, it’s in Vietnam that they find the proper scale for their talents. “Soul music,” Dave explains to them, “comes from loss.” Seeing the frustration in the American soldiers’ disillusionment over Vietnam gives The Sapphires an audience equal for their tune. Moreover, the fight of the Civil Rights movement in America lets the girls know that their onlookers recognize the pain of their past.

The Sapphires gives an admirable look at Australia’s testy history with racism as the girls, particularly Gail, explore the wounds that give them the fire Dave wants to see in their show. Australia’s systematic racism caused a rift between Gail and Kay, as Kay was taken from the family when they were kids and put into an institution to instill within her the colonial ways, much as the Canadian government did to Aboriginals in the Residential Schools. Kay has been passing as a white girl in Sydney ever since, and Gail looks at her cousin with contempt and betrayal.

Australia’s history of racism has been documented well in films that have preceded The Sapphires. Some of the best Australian films of the past decade—Rabbit Proof Fence, Jindabyne (my favourite), and yes, Australia—have provided dramatic looks at the legacy and lasting ripple effects of White Australia policy. (Canadian cinema can learn a lot from the Aussies.) The Sapphires provides one of the more entertaining looks at the emotional damage such segregation can bring, as the split between Gail and Kay plays like a kind of wound that signing could never heal. The backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement also extends the girls’ plight beyond The Sapphires to create a story that’s both specific and universal. It’s biography, but history too.

This milieu gives The Sapphires a unique spark for a musical. It’s fun, breezy, and glittery escapist fare as the best big screen musicals usually are, but The Sapphires has an extra oomph, much like soul music does, thanks to the palpable sense of loss that echoes through its numerous honey-tuned musical numbers. (The songs in The Sapphires all appear as on-stage musical numbers, so the film avoids any of the awkward transitions that arise when characters break into song.) The surprising undertone that emerges from the catchy sugar-pop gloss of The Sapphires gives it a voice of its own.

The Sapphires is a solid production all around thanks to director Wayne Blair’s steady hand behind the camera to screenwriters Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs for finding an appropriate balance to the spirited melodies. Briggs, who also wrote the play on which the film is based, is the son of one of the original Sapphires that inspired the film. The talented cast gives the film an effective emotional punch through both their vocal talents and their range of dramatic and comedic skills. O’Dowd is always a scene-stealer, but he’s particularly good playing the male lead of the film, as Dave is a charming doofus, but O’Dowd makes him an appropriate diamond-in-the-rough to lead the girls to fame. Mailman, on the other hand, is especially feisty as Gail. The biggest presence in The Sapphires—she’s the Effie White of the group—Gail has a strong personality that she’s developed like a defense mechanism as a result of growing up feeling like she’s second rate. When Gail finally lets her guard down and opens up about the loss she’s been unwilling to put into song, Mailman takes The Sapphires through a kind of moving cadenza before bringing it to its jubilant encore.

It’s impossible to resist the charm of The Sapphires. It’s easily the most enjoyable film to hit theatres so far this year, but it’s also one of the smartest and most soulful. Like the very best musicians in the business, The Sapphires tells a great story with affection for both its subject and its listener alike.

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

The Sapphires is currently playing in Toronto at The Varsity.
It opens in Ottawa on April 26 at Empire World Exchange.