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  Sapphires, The Just Keep Singing
Year: 2012
Director: Wayne Blair
Stars: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Lynette Narkle, Kylie Belling, Tammy Anderson, Gregory J. Fryer, Hunter Page-Lochard, Meyne Wyatt, Judith Lucy, Annette Hodgson, Don Battee
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: 1968 in Australia, and these three Aboriginal McCrae sisters have been singing together since childhood, though back then they used to perform with their cousin who has since left the mission where they live. This morning there is a contest held in town, and the two eldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are planning to go, but the youngest, Julie (Jessica Mauboy), is not allowed by their mother because she's underage for the event. She is most aggrieved by this, but what the girls don't reckon on is the racism of the organisers so in spite of their obvious talent, they lose...

However, the hard-drinking M.C., Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), notices they have a sparkle and harmony to their voices - Julie barges onto stage to join in their song halfway through - and after a little persuasion, all of a sudden they are planning to audition to sing for the troops in Vietnam. This was based on a stage play which in turn was based on a true story of author Tony Briggs' mother and aunt, who formed a pop group to do the same in the nineteen-sixties; although the precise facts were altered to make this more of a conventional narrative, the spirit of the experience was pretty much as it was depicted in the play and film, though with certain humour and dramatic licence.

Both those versions of The Sapphires could not escape being described as the Aussie Dreamgirls, which also fictionalised a soul singing group, though there were few original songs here as Briggs relied on cover versions for his female cast to trill (very prettily, as it turned out). But while the film of the American hit musical had been an elephantine and overearnest plodder suffering great vocal gymnastics labouring under so-so pastiche tunes, there was something a lot sprightlier about this effort which meant it raced along from incident to incident. Fair enough, this left it open to accusation of shallowness, but it was never bogged down in overly treacly emotion, even if it did get close in the latter stages.

In addition, it had a lot to say about how Aborigines were treated around the time, the community emerging from a legal breakthrough during the late sixties, and this was made more global with connections to the U.S. civil rights struggle made plain, not only because the girls sing American soul (Dave convinces them to ditch the country songs). There were those who complained the casting was off for hiring actresses who didn't look hugely Aborigine in the first place, but there was a reason for that. Just stay to the end and you'd see in photographs that the actual singers this was drawn from looked even less Aborigine than the performers here were, and this was beside the point anyway.

What the movie was resembled less Dreamgirls and more The Commitments, not least because of the presence of Irishman O'Dowd who seemed to be channelling the entire cast of that Alan Parker hit, with the same roguish wit and certain issues to be overcome. When he marshalls the McCraes to a proper audition for the U.S. Army's entertainment division, joined by that half-white cousin of theirs Kay (Shari Sebbens) who gets over her years of racist indoctrination fairly quickly, predictably they are accepted and we get the influence of Good Morning Vietnam as well. But for all the mainstream qualities, the fact remained there was a lot about this tale which was far from cosy or able to be wrapped up in a neat bow, and every so often a spiky sense of injustice would intrude which offered the film an interesting edge. Still conventional, but with a personality that a Hollywood movie would not necessarily have wholly opted for. Music by Cezary Skubiszewski.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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