There’s a moment in Wayne Blair’s Australian comedy “The Sapphires” in which a fledgling ’60s girl group auditions before a trio of stern American military officials. The goal: To land a gig entertaining American troops in Vietnam. The problem: These four young women have rich, powerful voices, and lots of enthusiasm, but they haven’t quite worked out the kinks in their act. They stand before these stern judges, looking slightly chunky in their matching, homemade tangerine-colored dresses. The music starts, and they flub the dance moves they’ve rehearsed religiously. But they sing the hell out of Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Lovin’ You,” as if the song were a vessel designed to hold every dream they ever had. They start pouring those dreams, first in droplets and then in torrents, until the vessel overflows.
These women win the gig, of course, but the moment says something even bigger about the power of ’60s girl groups in general: Their elegance – the bouffants, the eyeliner, the sparkly dresses – are intended to seem effortless, but between the notes, you can always hear the determination that got them there. That’s what makes girl groups both wonderful and more than a little touching, and it’s an aura that “The Sapphires” captures.
“The Sapphires” was inspired by a true story, and its triumph-over-adversity overlay has a special twist: The members of this particular singing quartet are Aboriginal, a group that, as an opening title card tells us, weren’t acknowledged as Australian citizens until 1967. (Before that, they were classified as “flora and fauna,” a social standing even lower than that of the “love child, never meant to be” Diana Ross sang about so wrenchingly.) This group of girls, consisting of three sisters and their cousin, have grown up in the outback, singing country songs. Then they meet Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a dissolute Irishman with a taste for American R&B. He becomes their benevolent Svengali, reshaping their image, getting them ready for that fateful audition, and then managing their affairs as they set off on their Viet Nam adventure.
There isn’t a whole lot of dramatic tension in the story, and most of what’s there derives from the occasionally strained relationships between the four women. Julie (Jessica Mauboy) is the youngest, and also the most ambitious, a stunner with a killer voice. (Dave, astutely, immediately makes her the lead singer.) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) is the “sexy” one who’s always getting herself into trouble, though she really has her sights set on one guy back home. Kay (Shari Sebbens) is the cousin, who as a child was snatched away from her home and raised by a white family, a common occurrence among Aboriginals that lasted, incomprehensibly, until the early 1970s. And the oldest member of the group, Gail (Deborah Mailman), is, as Dave notes, the “mama bear” who feels the need to protect everyone. She also resents Kay, believing her cousin considers herself black only when it suits her.
But in the end, the plot – or lack thereof - of “The Sapphires” may not matter so much. (The script is by Tony Briggs and Keith Johnson, adapted from Briggs’ original stage play, which was in turn based on his own family story.) The movie works chiefly as a snapshot of a time, a place and a particular situation, as well as a reminder that American racial tension in the 1960s had mirror images all over the world. One of the movie’s finest and most understated sequences shows groups of people – Aborigines at home in Australia, soldiers in Vietnam – watching news reports about the assassination of Martin Luther King.
And then, of course, there’s the singing. The performances are well staged (Mauboy herself sings lead vocal), and if there’s a bit of roughness around the edges, it all adds to the charm. Late in the movie, we see the girls taking the stage in shimmery mini-dresses, their hair teased into foxy Tina Turner-style ’dos. They’re about to perform before an audience of enthusiastic servicemen, and they have literally trekked through a war zone to get there. “The Sapphires” may be your stock triumph-over-adversity show-biz story – but then, how is it that we never get tired of seeing that story? A song is a thing that gives shape to dreams, and that’s as true in the Outback as it ever was in Detroit, Memphis or New York.