The Sapphires played at this year's Mostly British Film Festival and Cinequest. At the time, I knew that Landmark Theaters would exhibit the film sometime in 2013 so I skipped the film festival screenings. Casual conversations with festival goers revealed that it was well liked by the audiences.
A couple weeks ago, I drove to Palo Alto to see the film at the Landmark Aquarius. The man in front of me at the box office was compelled to tell the cashier that he had seen the film the day before and liked it so much that he was bringing his wife & granddaughter.
The Sapphires is a film that would probably have screened at a Landmark screen in SF but since the closure of the Lumiere and Bridge, the chain has 30% fewer screens in SF. I had to go to the East Bay or South Bay to see The Sapphires. Given that it is on its 4th or 5th week at the Aquarius, it must be popular with the audiences. There were probably 30 or 40 people at my screening.
The Sapphires starring Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens & Miranda Tapsell; directed by Wayne Blair; (2012) - Official Facebook
Speaking of the Aquarius, I noted that the upcoming DocFest (June 6 to 23) is venturing to the South Bay for the first time in my memory. The Aquarius is hosting DocFest from June 9 to 11. In addition, the New Parkway in Oakland is hosting DocFest from June 14-16 and the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz is playing host from June 21 to 23. The main venue is the Roxie from June 6 to 20 but there are also San Francisco screenings at the Balboa from June 7 to 9.
The Sapphires is an Australian production which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It was #1 at the box office when it opened in wide theatrical release in Australia last year.
Based on a true story involving the mother of one of the screenwriters, The Sapphires is set in 1968 Australia. The film opens in the Outback where the three McCrae sisters sing country music. There is the eldest sister Gail (Deborah Mailman) who is the leader of the group, both on and off the stage. The second sister is Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) whose character was least developed in the film. Youngest sister is Julie (Jessica Mauboy) who has the best voice, is the most ambitious about her singing career and has a son born out of wedlock during a time when that was still scandalous. It should be noted tha the three girls are Aboriginal Australians.
While competing in a local bar's amateur night contest (which they lose due to racism), they meet the drunken emcee/house pianist Dave Loveless (Chris O'Dowd). He protests the decision with the bar manager and is fired for his troubles. Loveless (who is an Irish immigrant) approaches Gail about teaming up with the girls as their manager/pianist/musical director. The three girls have seen an advertisement looking for singing groups to play in front of US servicemen in Vietnam and are considering auditioning for the gig in Melbourne. Loveless advises them to ditch the C&W music and become a R&B/Soul group as that will play better in front of the American. In addition, Loveless may be pasty white on the outside but he is Motown black on the inside.
In Melbourne they pick up the fourth Sapphire, their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. Tired of passing herself off as something she is not, as well as the tedious Tupperware parties, Kay sees the trip to Vietnam as exciting and a way to reconnect with her cousins whom she has been separated from for many years.
Loveless whips them into shapes with matching costumes, synchronized choreography, rehearsed Motown standards and by forcing Gail to cede lead vocals to Julie. Jessica Mauboy actually sang on the soundtrack whereas the other three were dubbed. I still wasn't "wowed" by on-screen Sapphires but I like Motown music more than most. Among the numbers I can recall them performing were I'll Take You There, I Heard It Through the Grapevine and Sugar Pie Honey Bunch. Anyway, they get the job and go to Vietnam where long-simmering issues flare up between the girls.
First, Dave & Gail continue to bump heads over leadership of the group. As any moviegoer knows, four times out of five, this means they are actually attracted to each other. The Sapphires doesn't goes against the odds. The two begin a relationship although Dave's drinking and the fact he is married puts some strain on the relationship.
Additionally, Gail & Kay have longstanding issues. According to the film, the Australian government would take Aboriginal children from their parents and raise them "white." I recall reading this somewhere before. Anyway, this happened to Kay as a child. Being the oldest, Gail was supposed to hide the children when the government agents came but on one such raid, Kay was taken. Gail has felt guilt ever since and Kay has an identity crisis since she has been raised to disdain the Aboriginal ways and everyone assumes she is white.
Anyway, the five of them tour Vietnam as tensions and passions rise. It culminates with the five of them having to cross a combat zone without military escort in order to play the biggest show of the tour. By this point, The Sapphires has descended into melodrama but not to worry, there is a happy ending. I won't recount the final part of the film except all the issues between the group members are resolved.
Although predictable, there is something winsome about The Sapphires. Mailman and O'Dowd do have a chemistry and they don't look like typical Hollywood actors. The film presents a new angle on a familiar plot. How many films about Aboriginal girl bands have you seen? Finally, the costumes they wear are 60's chic, at times reminding me of a Bob Hope USO show or a Supremes concert.
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