• Australian Catholic Bishops Conference
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The Sapphires

THE SAPPHIRES. Starring Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell. Directed by Wayne Blair. 100 mins. Rated PG (Mild violence, themes, coarse language and sexual references).

Quite a crowd pleaser – and deservedly so.

Who were the Sapphires? They were a group of Australian singers who went to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain the troops. They have not loomed large in the Australian memory. Why? Was it because the Sapphires were an aboriginal group and their tour of Vietnam took place just after the 1967 referendum on the aboriginal vote?

The film is an adaptation of a musical play written by Tony Briggs whose mother and aunt were members of The Sapphires. It has been directed with feeling by actor, Wayne Blair. It is not intended as a documentary account of what happened. Rather, it is an entertainment, an often-thoughtful entertainment, developing story lines from the original experiences.

It is a delight to see pictures of the women at the end of the film and learn of their more than forty years of service to the aboriginal communities, especially in Redfern.

On an aboriginal mission in country Victoria, some girls enter a competition in the local town, much to the prejudice of the hotel proprietor and many of the people attending the talent quest. The girls don’t win. And some bigoted, even vicious comments are aimed at them.

Meanwhile out on the mission, two young women are part of the group, (Gail, the ever-impressive Deborah Mailman, and Cynthia, Miranda Tapsell) performing to the delight of parents and the community – and a younger sister, Julie who sings best (Jessica Mauboy) who is determined to be part of it (and wangles getting into town). The breakthrough comes with the lackadaisickal compere at the competition, Dave (Chris O’Dowd). He becomes alert to the talent and offers to be the girls’ manager. Not easy because, Gail, the older sister, has a highly developed sense of responsibility. She clashes vigorously with Dave but is persuaded that they should go to Melbourne for an audition.

While the film offers many images of aboriginal life and status in the late 1960s, it also introduces the theme of the stolen generation when the girls need a cousin who lives in Melbourne, passing as white to her subconsciously racist friends, Kay (Shari Stebbens). Gail has issues with Kay which will surface when they are on tour.

To their delight and glee, the girls impress at the audition and they and their manager are en route to Saigon.

Audiences are familiar with the visuals of the Vietnam war from classics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, grim pictures of jungle battles, snipers in unfamiliar terrains, the Viet Cong. Apocalypse Now and, especially Bette Midler’s singing of In My Life in For the Boys, have stories of the entertainers. While the same elements are present here, convincingly portrayed, life in Saigon, the American presence, the touches of sleaze, but it is the range of songs, the situations where the concerts are held, the appreciation of the American soldiers which give verve and energy to the film.

The interesting thing is how the girls respond. Cynthia is out for a good time, boys, drink, even drugs. Julie, who has a little boy at home, is more cautious, but reacts against Gail’s supervision, but gets the opportunity to impress entrepreneurs. Kay is attracted to a soldier but conscious of her mixed race background. In the meantime, Dave and Gail fight, are caught up in dangerous situations, including a bombardment – but, of course, they are really attracted to each other, despite Dave’s often drinking, gambling and missing bookings.

There is use of some footage from the period, a recreation of the sense of the war in Australia at the time, protest and support. But, it is the characters and the amazing tour that they would not have anticipated as well as the range of songs of the time (and Jessica Mauboy’s performances with the others’ backup), that makes the film both lightly and seriously enjoyable.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out August 6 2012.

Hopscotch Films.