If an Aborigine were light enough, she could be kidnapped from her family and placed among Australian whites, to learn their habits. That was the case with the character known as Kay, a cousin of the sisters who form the soul group calling itself The Sapphires. The other women are bossy Gail, sweet Cynthia, and Julie, who’s awfully young but won’t be deterred from a singing career.
The film was written by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs. Briggs is the son of one of the sisters in the girl group, whose story “The Sapphires” riffs on. They were amateurs who loved to sing country/Western songs -- that’s the American West, not the Australian outback. Dave, a drunken m.c. for a talent show, responds to Gail’s fiery temper. Dave thinks these girls have more talent and would have more success if they shifted from CW to soul. He teaches them the moves and he teaches them the music, even though he’s not that great a musician and not much of the teaching is shown. And he gets them gigs. The movie does show their performances, which are toe-tapping, to say the least.
The other political aspect of “The Sapphires” is that they rose to local fame during the Vietnam War. A quick jump from Australia to Vietnam has the young women entertaining the troops, who were under fire and under the influence of Mary Jane. They do it with energy as they claim their place in the spotlight and as they claim their civil rights as dark-skinned females in the white, male world.
The best of those white males is played by Chris O’Dowd, an Irishman who played an American cop in “Bridesmaids.” He is a winning agent of change, his own and his small world’s in “The Sapphires.” Miranda Tapsell and Jessica Mauboy are good as the younger sisters, and Shari Sebbens stands out as Kay, the whitest of the black women. Deborah Mailman, who was also in “Bran Neu Dae,” is especially effective as Gail, the group’s Mama Bear, who gives the film gravitas.
More foundation is given by the newsreels of the Kennedy Brothers in the Sixties.
“The Sapphires” can be seen as just a light bit of musical history, or it can be seen in its political context. It’s light and easy to dance to, but it’s also a brief statement of civil rights.