The Sapphires (2012, directed by Wayne Blair) is a surprisingly serious film given that it's ostensibly a musical comedy biopic. Given that most of the film is set in Vietnam in 1968, it's also a surprise that the film's seriousness doesn't necessarily derive from the Vietnam war. But that's what you get when you look at the various cultural contexts surrounding soul music in the 1960s. It was an artform that was inextricably tied to the civil rights movements of the time. And, apparently, not just in America.
The story here follows a quartet of aboriginal cousins (two sisters and two cousins, as it were) who form a singing group and tour Vietnam in 1968, entertaining the American troops. The cousins are Gail and Julie (who are sister), Cynthia, and Kay. Kay is estranged from her cousins, having been taken from her family as a child and raised by whites in the city. Gail resents Kay, mostly for appearing to have turned her back on her identity. The catalyst for the formation of the group is one Dave Lovelace, a white keyboard player in a rundown local pub who spots Gail, Cynthia, and Julie at a talent contest. They lose the contest--they're clearly the best performers there, but they're black, so first place eludes them. Lovelace takes them on as a manager. His first task is getting them an audition, which proves to be difficult. Julie is under age, and her parents don't consent to her traveling with the group. She takes it upon herself to go with them. In the city, they find Kay, who is none to pleased to see them at first, because of the threat of being outed as black to her whitebread tuperware party friends. But she misses singing, so she eventually comes around. In rehersals, Gail and Dave butt heads: Dave demotes her as lead singer because she has the weakest voice of the four of them, and this starts a movie-long love/hate relationship between them. Then it's off to Vietnam, where the girls find danger, romance, and personal strife as the war zone tests each of them in turn. Kay finds a way to embrace her blackness, Julie and Cynthia and Kay find themselves among many eligible black men for the first time in their lives, and Dave and Gail bicker the entire trip. And around the world, people of color are waking up and influencing the world for the first time...
The Sapphires is a "true" story, as the saying goes. Screenwriter Tony Briggs based the film on his own family, who each gets a where are they now slide right before the credits. It's probably just as well that this is grounded in some kind of reality, because there's a fairy tale quality to the narrative that makes the film's more serious concerns go down easier than they might have. This doesn't smuggle its themes into the film in subtext, really. Indeed, it tells you right at the outset what it's about with a title card that details Australia's "Stolen Generation:" fair-skinned aborigines who were abducted from their families to be raised as white by white families. This practice continued into the 1970s. Even though the film is intensely concerned with this, it places it behind a curtain of music.
You won't get any argument from me when it comes to the transformative power of soul music. When Chris O'Dowd's Dave Lovelace states matter-of-factly that "90 percent of recorded music is shite and the other 10 percent is soul," he's not far wrong. Soul music is ambrosia for the ills of the world. This film understands this implicitly, and its soundtrack reflects this awareness. The Sapphires' repertoire includes "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," "What a Man," "The Land of 1,000 Dances," "Who's Loving You," and "I'll Take You There," among others. It throws in Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again," to boot, prompting Lovelace to turn up his nose at country music even as he recognizes that country and soul are inextricably related to each other. The actors--Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbins, and Miranda Tapsell--perform the hell out of these songs. They're entirely credible as a soul group from the period.
The relationship between Dave and Gail is the heart of the movie, and it's a classic film formulation of bickering opposites who eventually fall for each other. Dave is no one's idea of a catch. He's drunk and irresponsible. He has redeeming qualities, though. His embrace of soul music is emblematic of a guy who sees race, but isn't prejudiced by it. In purely symbolic terms, Dave is the end product of the conversation popular music has been having about race over the entire Twentieth Century. But he's a character first. Given the way she's been targeted in-movie by white racists, it's almost incredible that Gail would give Dave the time of day, and for most of the movie, that's the case, but she's not blind, and things that Dave values are things that she values, too. His willingness to defend her family with his own life is the tipping point, and it's surprisingly affecting. The scene where Dave chooses to abandon safety to find Cynthia and Kay is a bravura piece of filmmaking, and the distance it gives to what happens to him for his fecklessness hits harder than a close-up. We see him from Gail's point of view, which makes their subsequent relationship arc seem all the more natural.
As I say, music isn't the only thing on this movie's mind. It's acutely aware of the fact that it's about black women in a part of the world that really, really hates them. The naked racism depicted in The Sapphires is both bracing and unexpected. Americans sometimes have an insular idea of the issues of race. We Yanks think we're the best in the world at everything sometimes, racism included, but the Australians are having none of that. They're really good at it, too, down to the practice of cultural genocide. There's a very dark interlude at the beginning of this film's third act in which Kay's abduction from her family by the government is recounted, which is dark enough in a musical comedy. But the racism she brings back with her on her first trip home is even darker, as she talks to her cousin about how "you people would be better off if you worked rather than fished." Racism is learned, of course, and it's made all the worse when it's internalized.
The particulars of racism in the main story are contrasted with the broader world. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cassius Clay were global figures in 1968, and you can see their influence on the world stage in this film. The Sapphires doesn't delve too closely into the inherent racism of The Vietnam War, but it doesn't need to. It elides enough of it. This is the only concession to the African American experience of racism. The rest turns its gaze elsewhere to reveal that racism is a global problem, nor is its boot just confined to the necks of the descendants of Africans.