The Sapphires

This 2012 movie, inspired by a true story and adapted from the stage play The Sapphires by Tony Briggs (whose mother is Julie in the film), is about how four smart, gutsy young women became unlikely stars in the most unlikely of places.

Until 1967, Australia’s native Aboriginal population, amongst the oldest peoples on earth, were denied full citizenship by the Australian government. Segregated to church missions and Aboriginal reserves, they were not classified as human beings, but rather as “Flora and Fauna”. As late as the 1970’s, fair-skinned Aboriginal children were routinely taken from their families to be raised in institutions, or with white families, and taught “white ways”.

The movie opens with four talented children (with Tanika Lonesborough as Gail, Ava Jean Milleer-Porter as Cynthia, Miah Madden as Julie & Nioka Brennan as Kay) , known as the Cummeragunja Songbirds, running freely in the fields at Cummeragunja Reserve in Australia in 1958. One of the many songs (e.g. “Sweet By And By” & “I’m A Soul Man”) they learnt from an elder (with their male cousins) is “Yellow Bird” and by 1968, they were singing and performing in harmony.

Three of them (Sisters Gail – played by Deborah Mailman, Cynthia – played by Miranda Tapsell, & Julie – played by Jessica Mauboy) decided one day to go for an audition at a Talent Quest in Melbourne. They looked up their cousin Kay (played by Shari Sebbens) who was stolen as a child and was now in Melbourne because she was fair-skinned. They called themselves The Sapphires because Cummergunja Songbirds was such a mouthful that nobody, not even the panel of judges, could pronounce it.

It was a risky but irresistible chance to launch a professional career singing for U.S. troops in Vietnam and they engaged Dave Lovelace (played by Chris O’Dawd), a not-so-successful Rhythm-and-Blues Jewish musician they met by chance, as their manager to help mould and shape them. They transformed themselves and set out to make a name for themselves hundreds of miles away from home. This was the chance of a lifetime and they were destined for fame.

Besides the archival footage (eg on the streets of Saigon, at Kha Trang Hospital and John Kennedy announcing on TV that Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis), the sub-plots of love, romance and familial relationships, and original music by Cezary Skubiszewski, there are many songs (eg Morningtown Ride, Today I Started Loving You Again, I’ll Take You There, Since You Went Away, What A Man, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, You’d Better Shout My Love, If You Need Me, Banana Boat Song – during a flashback to Kay’s mother’s birthday when she was taken from the family and how she wasn’t allowed to return till her mother’s funeral, I Know A Place, These Arms Of Mine {Otis Redding}, I Wonder Why and Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch) throughout, numbering close to 30.

I really enjoyed the celebration of music, family and self-discovery in this film.


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