“The Sapphires”
Ah, the 1950’s. Sweet, idyllic, innocent, and….racist. Ah, the 1960’s. Glorious pop music, tumultuous politics, and…a horrible war.
“The Sapphires” is based on a true story, about two sisters growing up in Aboriginal territory in Australia during the 1950’s, when their mother taught them Aboriginal folk songs, and they sang during the house chores. When their two cousins would come over to visit, they’d sing, too. And then one of the cousins, because she “looked” white, was kidnapped by the government in that horrendous “reclamation” project and sent to a white family to learn “white” ways, the idea being that eventually the Aboriginals would just fade into oblivion. I suppose it’s not that much different from the attitude that the North American European settlers have had toward the indigenous “natives” in this part of the world. The Australian displacement method just sounds harsher because it’s historically more recent.
“The Sapphires” began as a local act in a County Fair Talent show. The Aboriginal sister act of Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and the golden-throated Julie (Jessica Mauboy) met up with an Irish boozer named Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) who was already reduced to playing light keyboard in noisy pubs, but who was still enough of a musician to recognize real talent when he saw it. He talks the girls out of their country/western obsession and persuades them to try some American “soul” songs of the 1960’s, and the musical magic happens. They add their long-lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) and suddenly they’re in Vietnam, with Lovelace as their tour manager, entertaining the American troops. And they are a big hit wherever they go.
Of course, it’s dangerous over there, which in part adds to the excitement for these girls “fresh off the reservation,” but when they realize nobody can really guarantee their safety, they decide to return home and live more or less “normal” lives. This story is actually told by a son of one of the singers, originally written as a stage play, and now converted to the screen, but despite the time distance and the second-hand translation, there’s something wonderfully fresh and magnetic and happy about this film. It’s not afraid to try some humor, and a little romance (though nothing bawdy). It’s not afraid to display a little conflict, even within the family group. And it’s not afraid to use no-name, unglamorous leads (no offense intended to any of these accomplished actresses and talented singers). It feels real, yet it also manages to bottle some exuberance. And oh, that wonderful 1960’s “soul” music, live, with great harmonies, and not over-produced: it’s a treat to the ear, and to the blissful memories of misspent youth, trapped somewhere within every Baby Boomer.
“The Sapphires” will have you tapping your toes, and rooting for these unknowns to make a go of it, in a culture which will feel familiar, like the memory of a halcyon youth, that’s now recalled through the rose-colored lens of wistful nostalgia.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas