Soul sisters sparkle in tale about a tumultuous time

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens are soul sisters The Sapphires.
Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens are soul sisters The Sapphires.

The Sapphires (PG)

A SENSE of belonging was something the Australian government felt was lacking among a significant part of the country's community in the 1960s, where the wrongs of the stolen generations were still in effect.

While there was an increasing movement for equal rights following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jnr and Rosa Parks in the United States, Australia as we know was still a tumultuous place.

The Cummeragunja mission is where we find sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), excellent singers but at the mercy of the white Australians who stare them down with their every step. When Irishman Dave (Chris O'Dowd) discovers their talent and decides to help them realise fame, they find themselves flying to Saigon as a soul group to perform for soldiers in the Vietnam War.

There is fun and games as they become cosy with some of the audience along their travels, but the environment not only raises fears for safety but their insecurities about any sort of belonging. Fourth member Kay (Shari Sebbens) may be the girls' cousin, but as half-Irish her attempts to shun her Aboriginal heritage are not well-received. Struggles to forget long-buried memories are futile.

At one point of the film, each of the girls are given labels by David in what is seemingly a sign of the times. But Wayne Blair's first feature sticks to the overall tone of the play on which the film is based, where Australia's issues are not the overall focal point. It is the girls that rightly remain at the fore, each with their own ferocious personalities that constantly come to surprise David.

Playwright Tony Briggs adapted the screenplay, while Mailman was an original production member. Based on Briggs' family, real-life Sapphires Laurel Robinson, Lois Peeler, Beverley Briggs and Naomi Mayers, more Indigenous star influence is exerted for the adaptation with Samson and Delilah director Warwick Thornton on board as cinematographer.

Blair has a fun cast not afraid to play around with the material. Chris O'Dowd is a bumbling David, a manager who takes a special interest in Gail. Mailman is hard as the mama hen of the quartet, rarely letting her guard down for the protection of her family as well as their integrity. But it's Jessica Mauboy who gets her 15 minutes of fame. The singer, who previously worked with Mailman in Bran Nue Dae, is the star of the show and it never suggests otherwise.

Thornton's cinematography makes the most of the Australian and Vietnamese locations, but it's the soundtrack that really helps the film along. Great renditions of songs from Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Merle Haggard lift the mood to give this feel-good venture a bit of respect. In the stretch of prominent Indigenous films in recent years, this falls on the lighter side but refuses to forget the hardships many faced, and those that still reside today.

Rating: 4/5

Now screening at Reading Cinemas