Directed by Wayne Blair, The Sapphires movie brings Aboriginal narratives into the glossy mainstream, but not without flaws
I walked into the cinema laughing at this last-minute choice of film, and giggling even harder when seeing how empty the room was upon my late entry. No matter, I thought, The Sapphires seems a unique enough story: four Aboriginal females making it big in the music industry with the hilarious Chris O’Dowd as their manager. It’ll make for some easy, amusing viewing at least.
It did and it didn’t. This film had all the potential of being a rousing, genuine and entertaining flick, often achieving this brilliantly in some moments, with its casual and intermittent nods towards the imbedded racism of 1960s Australia, and hardly at all in others. We are introduced to three funny young ladies, sisters, each in possession of impressive singing voices, on a mission towards fame and success – achievements they feel unwaveringly are their due. With gumption, they head out to perform at a local talent contest where they meet the rough and unkempt Dave (O’Dowd) who functions as a small-town talent scout. Rejected by the racist locals and after some cajoling, the girls pique Dave’s interest, and once they’ve grabbed their fair-skinned cousin along for the ride, so the story of impending stardom begins.
On first look, it seems to be your average rags-to-riches storyline, and it does indeed follow this trajectory. However, race and family are the most prominent themes, rather than lack of money which is only given a sideways glance at best. The best element of the film was, undoubtedly, the focus on the fraught history of the Aboriginal community under dominant white Australians seeking to breed them out. But, for those with some knowledge of the struggle indigenous communities faced, the film was frustrating in that it never delved as deep as I hoped or felt it could.
Instead, the film pays lip service to the topic before taking us on a journey into war-torn Saigon, onto military bases, into smoky, cramped clubs, and onto dazzling stages where the girls gloriously sing and dance for the enjoyment of the army. During all of this, some of the sisters have flings or relationships with the officers, but these add little value to the story. The only meaningful alliance seems to be Kay’s relationship with the black officer – important because she is the ‘whitest’ of the girls and initially overtly self-hating – but even this storyline is clumsily developed, relying on an inordinate amount of cheese. More often than not, things just felt too glossy, too blasé and too fun.
Yet, perhaps that was the intention. I suspect there aren’t too many motion pictures about the Aboriginal community that don’t put an unbearable amount of weight on their suffering and pain. The Sapphires almost felt like the sweet antidote to that, one which happily and flamboyantly shouts, “yes we suffered and still suffer, but we can also have fun and be joyous – this is one thing that can’t be stolen from us.” Considering how few mainstream films focus on the Aboriginal community and its history at all (I can call to mind Rabbit Proof Fence, but struggle to remember anything else prominent), The Sapphires is already sure to grab some attention by merely existing. It must be noted, though, that it is a big deal for O’Dowd to associate himself with this project, because I fear that without his face on the ads and posters, this film may have gone largely unseen.
Overall the flick is fun, likeable, full of great, karaoke-worthy music, and has that Hollywood happily-ever-after ending. If there was only one thing I could have hoped for, it is that the most intriguing storyline of the film be developed further: the hostility between big sister Gail and cousin Kay, based around issues of racial identity, self-loathing, and family belonging. The background to this tension provided all the potential to make an emotive and powerful story, but perhaps that was never the objective of this light-hearted musical comedy drama.
Nevertheless, I am sated when recalling a particularly poignant scene when the family return back to their unpronounceable village. Sitting in the grass with their grandmother, Kay and Gail listen serenely and silently weep as she speaks to them in the lilting tones of their native tongue and wholeheartedly welcomes them home. A wonderful scene, and, on the whole, a wonderfully enjoyable film.
Image from: http://www.indiewire.com/article/bahamas-intl-film-festival-announces-full-lineup-bookended-by-quartet-sapphires
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