Atlanta Film Festival Retro Spotlight: THE SAPPHIRES

Ed. Note: THE SAPPHIRES played Sunday at The Plaza, but with the Atlanta Film Festival running through Sun. March 24, there are still plenty of movies to come. Check out our top Retro picks here.

Retro Review by Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Wayne Blair’s THE SAPPHIRES is a true-life story about race, war, music and love, a tale about four Aborigine women who rose above hatred and tragedy to represent Australia to the world just months after the country began acknowledging their people’s rights. It’s an incredibly compelling story that’s unfortunately resulted in a less than compelling film that distills the events down to their most obvious, predictable bullet points. The movie carries a tune, but there’s no feeling in the song.

Late-60s race relations in Australia weren’t much better than in the United States, and in some respects, the situation in Australia was worse. A government policy (dubiously presented as protecting black culture) endorsed the outright theft of fair-skinned Aborigine children, who were then raised in the cities as whites—the so-called Stolen Generations. Two 1967 amendments to the Australian constitution granted Aborigines a bank of basic human rights, as up to that point, the official position of Australia, dating back to colonization, was that the people were part of the country’s “flora and fauna.” Unfortunately, there as here, progress was slow to change minds. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, and Miranda Tapsell star as a quartet of rural Aborigine country and western singers struggling to find a white audience for their music in 1968. An Irish musician (BRIDESMAIDSChris O’Dowd, playing the Buttermaker role of the curmudgeonly drunk) discovers the girls at a talent show, and the group is soon off to Vietnam to entertain the American troops, but not before using a montage to learn the far sexier and, as the movie puts it, blacker sounds of soul music.

Audiences in love with soul will have the most fun with THE SAPPHIRES as the soundtrack of period tunes is by far the most engaging part of the film, and the production doesn’t skimp on period costumes and 60s flair. Unfortunately, as drama, the movie doesn’t offer very much. THE SAPPHIRES is built as a pleasant crowd-pleaser, coasting along on charm and good music, without a hint of dramatic urgency. Blair and Briggs thankfully ditch the band movie tropes, so there’s no big venue the girls are trying to reach, no agent to impress and no money needed to save the farm. But the filmmakers never find another story on which to hang the film’s characters and themes. Instead, once the gang arrives in Vietnam, the story splinters out into a series of romantic subplots that all play out more or less as you expect. Only once in the film do the girls brush up against the reality of war in Vietnam, and the rest of the time is spent romancing soldiers, singing songs and bickering about who’s in charge.

The Sapphires perform. Hopscotch Pictures, 2013.

Which is a shame, because the film does boast some fine performances from actors who deserved more to do. There’s no movie star, no Beyonce, hiding in the group of girls, and so they’re allowed to blend together as a true ensemble. If there is a standout, it’s Mailman, who plays the toughest of the women and the least willing to be bullied by a world that she sees as inherently unjust. She makes for an unlikely and refreshing romantic lead, and her pairing with O’Dowd is charming and believable. Also making an impression is Shari Sebbens as a person struggling with her racial identity after growing up in Melbourne as one of the stolen children, and her racially-charged tension with Mailman’s character provides an occasional dramatic spark.

In fact, THE SAPPHIRES is most affecting when it takes the time to explore the thorny racial issues of the 60s, including one touching scene that shows the reaction in Vietnam to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, a reminder that the path of racial justice here in the south had many observers around the world. Unfortunately, the film never quite finds its footing in the personal stories as it does in the grander themes. The performances and music are nice enough, but those looking for a deeper or more enriching experience may be disappointed. THE SAPPHIRES is all melody in search of a hook.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game writer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He writes at www.thehollywoodprojects.com and hosts a bimonthly screening series of classic films at theaters around Atlanta.

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