Starring Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, and Shari Sebbins
Directed by Wayne Blair
The Sapphires begins with title cards writing the context of Australia’s anti-Aboriginal poilicies, including the separation of light skinned Aboriginal children from their parents. This movie portrays a family’s daughters trying to heal each other’s wounds. Then it focuses on the personal, loosely based on the true story of four Aboriginal cousins who sang folk and country music but eventually branching out to soul music, the dominant genre of the volatile late 1960’s. They have overcome race and class-based oppression, both from outsiders and even from within the group or family.
One of the group’s real life members, Laurel Robinson, is the mother of this movie’s sscreenwriter, Tony Briggs, whose script is adapted from his award-winning play of the same name. That said, here I am, as one of the last people who will point out the bad parts of the movie. Because I must, as much as it pains me to do so.
This group, in whatever capacity and perseverance that they had, performed in Australia and war-torn Vietnam. There was the group’s big sister Gail (Mailman), the kitteny Cynthia (Tapsell), the young mother Julie with the booming voice (Mauboy), and the Kay, (Sebbins) who is ambivalent about her race. We can already imagine the personalities clashing.
For dramatic purposes, the movie adds a homeless band manager Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd, who gets first billing), the groups’ matriarch, a band member’s child and love interests to the mix. I’m all right with this handful of characters, but I can’t say the same about their dynamic. Name two characters and I guarantee that they are going to air out a grudge against each other at least in one of many fighting scene.
I understand, as a person belonging to a ‘minority’ group, that it’s not easy to face racial tension. While encountering these obstacles, I also understand the group members’ instinct is to fight back or fight each other, as some people do in real life. Their instincts are better than dismissing and permanently suppressing their emotions and needs, which is what many female characters unfortunately are written to do.
But I’m sure fictional characters or real life people in the most challenging of situations aren’t always yelling at someone. Blair and Briggs’ only weapon to counter the combative dialogue is the blaring music. These frenetic elements become slightly unpalatable in a movie that desperately needs its quiet moments.
But despite of calling the music ‘blaring,’ I have to admit that the musical numbers are the film’s most moving segments. It didn’t matter which genre the girls were singing in. Some songs made me cry and others made me dance in my seat, as they are meant to do.
This movie also belongs to the roster of musicals that the Weinsteins pick up once every few years. I acknowledge the numerous sins that they have committed, but at least they love modern spins on so-called ‘dated’ genres. They also like great leading female performances, like the one that Mailman executes with such versatility.
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