At Last, The Sapphires Play the States

sapphiresWe finally got to watch The Sapphires last night. I expect that everyone in Australia who’s reading this saw the film a long time ago, but it had very limited theatrical release in America.  It is, however, out on Netflix  now, so for my American readers (and anyone who might be interested in purchasing the DVD, which is still being marketed with the infamous cover that relegates the stars to the blue background–but you didn’t really believe Anchor Bay when they said they’d change it, did you?), I wanted to say that it’s a wonderful experience and shouldn’t be missed.

The story of four young Aboriginal women from the Cummeragunja Reserve Mission who, in the 1960s, parlay an appearance at a local talent show into a gig touring Vietnam to entertain the soldiers fighting there is loosely based–perhaps inspired is a better word–on a real life trio that included the mother of author Tony Briggs.  Briggs wrote the play upon which the film is based and brought it to the Melbourne stage in 2004; he co-authored the screenplay with Keith Thompson.  The legendary Wesley Enoch directed on stage and the equally legendary Wayne Blair helmed the movie.  The film debuted in 2012 at Cannes and it is a measure of its appeal, frankly, that it was released in the United States at all.  It’s too bad that it didn’t see wider distribution here, but I suspect that a feel-good film that deals however lightly with a US intervention in a foreign war might be a hard sell in some quarters these days.  More’s the pity.

Briggs has packed his story full of important themes.  Racism’s pernicious effects are pervasive, be that in the story of Kay, fair-skinned and stolen from her family at an early age, or the hostile reception the girls receive at the local pub’s talent show.  But over-riding all is the importance of family, of loyalty, and of home.  In a way, the arc of the story is about coming home, or finding home.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot to those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll stop there.  I will say that the story is artfully constructed and its roots as a stage play can be discerned in the film.  It doesn’t look like a filmed version of a play, but the way the story unfolds owes more to the conventions of the theatre than to film.  And of course, there are all the show-stopping performances by the Sapphires themselves: I can’t remember the last time “Land of a Thousand Dances” sounded so good, and Jessica Mauboy has finally rehabilitated “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” for me.  Ever since The Big Chill ruined that song thirty years ago, I’ve cringed every time I’ve heard it until last night.  Now I’m ready to dance again.  It’s that good a movie.  (And, yes, I bought the soundtrack album, too.)

As it’s been a while since I was reading reviews of the film in the newspapers, I had a few pleasant surprises.  The first was Warwick Thornton’s superb cinematography.  That in itself is no surprise: Thornton’s films are always beautiful to watch.  But I’d forgotten that he was part of this endeavor, and early scenes in the movie, like the overhead shot in which he captures the young girls dumping bags of oranges they’ve harvested from the mission orchard into the back of a flat-bed ute, convinced me almost from the start that I was in for a pretty special evening’s entertainment.

I’d also forgotten that Bangarra’s Stephen Page is the film’s choreographer.  As he did with Bran Nue Dae, Page manages to adapt his style perfectly to the moment.  The early scenes in which the girls awkwardly attempt to put some soul in their styling are deft and loving: you can laugh gently at their amateurishness and earnestness, while still enjoying the movement.  And by the time the Sapphires are headlining shows in the war zone (see: “Land of a Thousand Dances”), the choreography is inspired.  It’s hot, it’s innocent, it’s infectious all at once.  Throughout, Page’s touch is pitch perfect, if I can mix my metaphors.

And the acting is brilliant too.  I’ll admit I have a soft spot for Chris O’Dowd’s hapless Irishman.  He has saved far too many dumb comedies (see: BridesmaidsFriends with Kids) for me in the past, but here his performance is funny, gentle, and warm-hearted, without overpowering the real stars of the show.  That is, the Sapphires themselves.

I’d first seen both Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in the second episode of Redfern Now, and it was a treat to spend more time with them in The Sapphires.  Sebbens, as Kay, has the meatier role, and she plays it to perfection again, the young girl caught between two worlds.  She can move between self-doubt and self-assurance with an eye-blink, and be equally convincing in both portrayals.  Tapsell is just marvelous as the girl who enjoys life to the fullest: she may be a backup singer in the band and she can play second-fiddle (metaphorically speaking) to her sister Gail sometimes, but the energy and exuberance she brings to the role makes her a standout.

Jessica Mauboy as Julie McCrae fronts the Sapphires on stage most of the time, and she does what she does best: ignite the crowds with her voice, her style, and her presence.  I’d expected her to have a larger role overall, but whenever she sings, she commands the scene.

I don’t want to say that Deborah Mailman owns the movie, because the ensemble playing is so perfectly pitched, but she is a knockout as Gail, the mouthy, determined, troubled, confident older sister.  In the first few scenes in which she appears, at the mission and in the pub, I found myself wondering how they found a teenaged actress who looked so much like Mailman to play her character as a young woman.  And then I realized that the teenager singing in the pub really was Deborah Mailman, the very same woman who played Bonita Mabo to such perfection, the same one who snapped at Kelton Pell so convincingly in Redfern Now.  I know this is going to sound over the top, but I kept thinking of Meryl Streep as I watched her: the uncanny ability to utterly inhabit a role is a trait these two actors share.

In short, The Sapphires is great fun.  The story will make you laugh, make you dance, and leave you with a lump in your throat.  It’s a visually brilliant film from its first shot of a hazy white sky to the last shot of the starry night, with the four stars of the Southern Cross winking down at the four stars on the mission stage.  If the story moves you, the music will make you move, and the acting alone is worth the price of admission.  I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.

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