Friday, April 19, 2013

The Sapphires

Here’s hoping this will be a sleeper hit like Dirty Dancing

     The Sapphires is an Australian movie based on a stage play by Tony Briggs that was inspired by a true story.  I hope it’s a hit because it’s worthwhile and the additional Mariemont cinemas need some business, though the few audience members with whom we saw it acted like they were preparing
for a proctology exam.  The Sapphires is set in 1968, a watershed year in American political and cultural history, but also for Australia because it was the year after rights were expanded for Aborigines.  It’s about three indigenous sisters who try out for an amateur night, at which they’re definitely not welcome, singing Merle Haggard songs.  However, the drunken, Irish emcee realizes they’re something special and, through a piece of happenstance, they find themselves on a tour performing for American troops in Vietnam.

The Sapphires Being Escorted Throughout Vietnam
     The three sisters are Gail (Deborah Mailman), the emotionally tough earth mother, Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the underage lead singer based on the writer’s mother, and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) the funny, trampy one.  Their mixed ethnic cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) was taken from the extended family as a child under the Australian government’s relocation policy for children that could pass as white.  What turns them around is changing genres from country to Stax inspired soul.  American music and conflict define what they do during this discrete (and, perhaps, minor) period in their lives.  Although the tensions between the women have been compared to the epic pop opera Dreamgirls, it’s really nothing like that movie at all.  This is smaller in scale and the music is not as central, but the story goes much further to deal with race relations (black and white American as well as white and indigenous Australian) and the American adventure in Asia.   This is ironic since it’s Australian, but maybe it’s easier for them to be objective.

The Family Home in Australia
     The story presents various tropes, but the female characters have substance and the women on whom they’re based went on to do extraordinary and important things after their moment of performing fame.  What’s refreshing (and without giving away too much) is that they put family first and are able to move on with their lives.  The ensemble acting is understated and is more powerful in retrospect than while viewing it and that is a compliment. 
Chris O'Dowd
     Chris O’Dowd plays Dave, the Irish manager, and he reminded Neil of Jason Segal.  There’s a louche quality about him that I find attractive because it’s such a relief from the dreary, moralistic, feeble-minded, gym bunny heroes blowing up lots of hardware in the crass, pandering summer epics around the corner.  I’m never sure if O’Dowd’s characters really give a damn and when it’s revealed that they do, it really means something.
Deborah Mailman
Deborah Mailman has a unique presence.  She’s had a big career in Australia and it’s easy to see why.  She’s not like any other performer I can think of.  Or rather, she is, but such a mix of types that to list them would somehow make her seem bizarre and she’s anything but.  She’s grounded, yearning, strong and vulnerable and able to convincingly play a character almost half her age.  She’s a good singer – but not a great one – as Dave bluntly points out, but the high point of the movie is when she sings lead at a moment where she fully understands the power of soul – really, the blues.  

Jessica Mauboy
     Jessica Mauboy can sing strong and she nails the style without overdoing it.  That’s easier to say than to do.  Although she was a runner-up on Australian Idol, she has the subtlety and good taste to know how to put over a song, rather than selling herself.  If only she could train some of The Voice or American Idol contestants.   It also helps that she’s conventionally attractive i.e. she could have a chance at an American career if she so chooses.  Miranda Tapsell is funny and idiosyncratic-looking so it’s not until it’s over that you realize she’s playing a cliché.  Shari Stebbens gets the most intriguing story in that her ‘passing’ character enters into a relationship with a black medic and there are moments when the ethnic prejudice stings; they’re needed because they leaven some of the fairytale aspects of the plot.

     There’s no padding in this movie and I wish it could have been another ten minutes or so because there are some dangling details and underdeveloped points.  The group goes from being completely amateur to a good stand in for a Motown act in an extremely short time.  Wisely, the movie never suggests that they’re on the same level as the era’s hitmakers, but rather that they’re a spirited farm team.  At the climax, the women are in a very dangerous situation, but we don’t quite know how they got there.  Did the tour break down because Dave was drunk and not paying attention or because troop movements leave them stranded?  There’s an issue brought up about payment because Dave, unlike Gail, doesn’t have much of a head for business, but we don’t know what eventually happens.  It’s easy to miss the women’s extended family once they’re on tour because they’re intelligent and good humored in a way that we don’t often see in American movies.  They reminded me a little of some Native Americans I’ve known, but we rarely have the chance to see them in movies either.   

     Some of the period details are off.  “I’ll Take You There,” wasn’t a hit until 1972.  The women’s fashions look right, but the men’s hairstyles – the GIs especially – are more like the early ‘70s.  However, these are quibbles in what is a delightful movie about big themes presented with tact and modesty.

It sounds like there were a lot of tense scenes in this movie.

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