The Sapphires Balances Heart and Drama Against Themes of Race and Identity

The Sapphires Poster

The Sapphires Poster

TitleThe Sapphires
Genre(s)Biography, Comedy, Drama
Director(s)Wayne Blair
Release Year2013

The Sapphires makes no attempt to hide its look at racism and prejudice, despite its seemingly “fun” exterior. Yes, it is filled with soul music, brash Aussie humor, and Chris O’Dowd, but that doesn’t make it any less a film about trying to find one’s self. Undeniably predictable, the film balances the perfect amount of heart and dramatic beats, all anchored by charming performances from its leading ladies and O’Dowd, making up for its generic ending and fairly typical rising star plot. If there is one feel-good movie worth checking out this year, it is The Sapphires which manages to shed light on the racial tensions of Australia during the 1960’s and subsequently show the everlasting bond within a community.

Taking place under the backdrop of the Vietnam War and inspired by a true story, The Sapphires follows Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Kay (Shari Sebbens) as they follow their dreams to become famous. When they perform at a local talent show, not intended for aboriginal Australians, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd) helps bring the girls to stardom by getting them an audition to perform for troops in Vietnam. Naturally, the girls get the gig and leave their home to be discovered, but what follows is actually a story about how they discover themselves in the midst of conflict (well, at least two of the girls do, Julie and Cynthia are kind of just there to sing or for comedic relief). The plot is not original by any stretch of the imagination, and if it wasn’t for the charismatic cast, there would be less to talk about here, but thankfully that is not the case.

Chris O'Dowd also happens to just give one of the best performances I've seen from him.

Chris O’Dowd also happens to just give one of the best performances I’ve seen from him.

The film shows a struggle against adversity in the most uplifting of manners with characters that most of the time feel like they actually grow with one another. Whether it be Dave, who wants nothing more than to turn his life around and rise up from the gutter he has landed in, or Kay who is only half-aboriginal, but knows deep down that she belongs with the pure-blooded aboriginal Australians, there is plenty of character within everyone. The character that most stands out though, is Gail, who is the oldest of The Sapphires, and the most protective of them. As Dave puts it in the film, she is the mama bear, and will stop at nothing to protect her cubs. The only characters that I don’t feel like grow at all are Cynthia and Julie, who sort of remain who they were before, despite the fact that they just toured through Vietnam, saw carnage all around them, and lived to talk about it. Cynthia especially acts more like a comedic anchor rather than someone who learns anything. 

It is hard to make a drama that can make you smile at the same time though, so having a few characters who are consistently humorous or dramatic is expected, especially when you are already developing a few characters. For some it will probably be a little jarring when The Sapphires cuts from the sound of explosions in the distant background as the girls look absolutely terrified to them performing upbeat, energetic soul music. That being said, I think the music is what manages to keep everything balanced. As Dave puts it in the film, soul music is about loss and the struggle to get it back, which the way the music is implemented into the film helps convey. Plus, the notion behind soul music also applies to the characters of the film like Kay, who had been assimilated into white culture and is now trying to be accepted by Gail back into aboriginal culture, and Dave who has meandered through life and is now trying to make something of himself. There’s no acceptance of loss by any of the characters, because they have already lost so much, such as their land and culture, and that is why The Sapphires is an uplifting tale. We don’t see them losing anything ever, but see them trying to get it back, just like how a great piece of soul music doesn’t depress you and then try to make you dance.

The music is what drives this film, and it will be tough for you not to dance in your seat.

The music is what drives this film, and it will be tough for you not to dance in your seat.

It is really the performances that set The Sapphires above the typical rags-to-riches/overcoming adversity film that we’ve seen over and over. Chris O’Dowd provides some great weight to the film, and Deborah Mailman feels larger than life as the commanding, and overbearing big sister. Add to that a soundtrack that will have you tapping your feet, and you have one of the few films that will make you feel extremely cheerful while also managing to deal with some fairly substantial themes. Though the movie never does anything new or exciting, it maintains an equilibrium that other films would fail to match, and that is why The Sapphires is deserving of the praise it has been getting.

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