This is not to say that the heavier issues surrounding Indigenous culture and history should not be addressed; it is also not to say that The Sapphires glosses over these stories. On the contrary, the film simply chose to tell a different kind of story, one that was loosely based on writer Tony Briggs’ mother’s own life.
First staged as a play in 2004, director Wayne Blair’s film adaptation applies all the imaginative liberties of fiction while keeping the story rooted in reality and history. Based in 1968, the Sapphires are first introduced as the Cummeragunja Songbirds, consisting of the McCrae sisters: Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), the youngest, Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens).
The musicality of the story does more than set the harmony for a feel-good movie — it also carries the undercurrents of the racial differences between white country and black soul music. Right at the beginning of the movie, a dulcet a capella rendition of Merle Haggard’s ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ is a delightful interlude of the sisters with their mother (Kylie Belling). It showcases their talent, their ironic adulation for Nashville country and western music and the loving spirit of Indigenous family ties. Deriving their influence from white country and western music is puzzling, but perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that African-American jazz bands were banned in Australia until 1954, following a scandal involving The Colored Idea Band of Sonny Clay in 1928 (a handful of the band members were found with white Australian women which caused public outrage).
A serendipitous meeting with Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a boozy Otis Redding-loving Irishman, at a local talent quest opens up the sisters to the true depth of soul music. He takes it upon himself to be their manager, grooming them for Vietnam and getting them to trade in their Tammy Wynette-esque warbling for the hollering respect of The Supremes.
The movie has many facets to it that could cast a much darker shadow — with war, racism and a reference to the Stolen Generations — but the general aura is kept positive. In many ways, this causes a few implausible plot arcs and a clunky narrative, but the movie makes up for it in sparkling performances and warm character deliveries. Parallels are drawn with racial politics in America, with footage of African-American icons Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali.
It’s not hard to see why the international stage took a shine to the film, having since been picked up by the Weinstein company and receiving a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.
Truth be told, as someone who holds no cultural ties to white Australia or the Aboriginal community, I was sceptical of my ability to connect with the issues raised in the film. All of that was laid to rest and I was surprised to find myself endeared to the characters and their story so well that the stereotypes or disjointed storyline did not matter. This is definitely a film of which Australians, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, should be proud.
MABEL HO is a publishing intern at the Alternative Law Journal. As an international student, it only took her 10 years to understand Australia.