The bright singing voices of four Aboriginal girls play over grainy archival footage documenting 1960s racial unrest and upheaval in the opening moments of Wayne Blair’s biopic The Sapphires. This connection between innocence and trauma is initially striking, as if a quartet of angels were harmonizing the musical score to a gritty mosaic of verité-style imagery. It also leads one to believe that the filmmakers plan on deviating from typical thematic representations of a time period marked by racial volatility. But whatever cache Blair earns from this smart juxtaposition early on fades almost immediately when the sappy underdog story of the aforementioned songbirds kicks into full gear.
Living on the fringes of a small outback township in Australia, grown sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Nauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) love to sing for different reasons. Blair goes out of his way to label them accordingly, forcing their potential dimensionality as vibrant young women into a nicely contained box. Gail is the bossy mother hen, Julie the diva in the making, and Cynthia the sexpot yearning for a man. They aren’t characters so much as shells of motivation wearing human skin. When the trio performs at a local singing competition hosted by a sarcastic, drunken Englishmen named Dave (Chris O’Dowd), their rousing rendition of a Merle Haggard tune sparks his interest while alienating and offending the mostly white crowd. One convoluted plot point later and Dave has the sisters singing soul music and bound for Melbourne to one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” auditions. The prize: touring war-ravaged Vietnam while performing for embattled American troops.
The stopover in Melbourne is mightily convenient, as with most of the narrative threads in The Sapphires, since the sisters finally get the chance to confront a mixed-race cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who shunned her roots after being abducted by the government years previous. Kay is a personification of Australia’s Stolen Generation, but her traumatic past and conflicted present is sloppily digested into the overall fluffy narrative. Once again, Blair isn’t interested in historical complexity or subtext, just the seamless flow of Hollywood-style storytelling that lazily connects one musical number to the next.
When The Sapphires finally touches down in Saigon, Blair attempts an ambitious mix of tones. This is evident during the women’s drive from the airport to their hotel, which begins as a simple-minded celebration of their newfound freedom in a foreign country before taking a hard right turn into darker territory when the consequences of war fill the frame. While another violent wake-up call comes later in the film during a horrific war sequence that interrupts a massive concert, moments like these are ill-timed and thoroughly inconsequential to Blair’s simplistic overall vision of redemption and reconciliation. In the end, The Sapphires might allude to weighty issues regarding racial and gender inequality, war, and class division, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. The film’s true concern remains overproduced musical epiphanies of the lowest order that fade from memory almost immediately.