Based on a true story this Australian film centres on four aboriginal girls, three sisters and a cousin, and their quest for fame in the late sixties.
Gail, Cynthia and Julie are sisters living in rural Australia in 1968 with a penchant for folk and country music. They, along with their cousin Kay, used to perform as a group for their family when they were children. Now adults the three sisters continue with this pursuit. During a talent contest in the local town, hosted by the overtly racist hotel owner, the girls encounter the Irish rogue Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). Lovelace is a down-and-out musician who advises the sisters that the proper music for black girls to sing is Soul rather than Country and Western. Having secured the girls an audition to perform for U.S. soldiers in Vietnam the quartet form an unlikely alliance; the sisters as the talent and Lovelace as manager. Reunited with cousin Kay, and much to the dismay of mother figure Gail, the group reorganises and under the tutelage of Lovelace becomes an archetypal Soul group akin to Diana Ross and the Supremes. After wowing the crowds in Vietnam with their first performance the band are sent on a tour of military outposts until a fateful U.S.O. show sees them return home again.
Set against a backdrop of a war and civil rights movements in both America and Australia there is a surprising lightness to The Sapphires. The time spent in Vietnam does try to highlight the toll that war took on the troops involved but this is heavily offset with scenes of merriment such as late night poker games or barbecues. The issue of racism is raised on a number of occasions also but in a ham-fisted almost embarrassed fashion. This is particularly highlighted in the film’s attempt to broach the subject of Australia’s so-called ‘Lost Generation’. The reasons for Kay’s estrangement are hinted at throughout but only clarified in the form of a story retold by Gail, involving Kay’s de facto abduction and placement with a white family, after which she and Lovelace begin dancing. This shift in tone from solemnity to frivolity is quite jarring and is echoed each time the story leans towards darker elements. When the movie truly shines is in dealing with the lighter side of its story. O’Dowd will please anyone who is already a fan of his work with his brand of awkward charm and the Australian cast display a wonderful aptitude for the comedic elements of the script. Short scenes involving the sisters’ father are especially noteworthy. Superior vocal performances lend the soundtrack some gusto and the version of ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ does the Soul roots of this film more than proud.
While this story may skirt around the issues that were prevalent during the time in which it is set, and though it may not be as extraordinary as the story which was its inspiration, it is no less heart-warming and no less deserving of attention.