Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Sapphires: Laughs, Songs, and Equality During The Tet Offensive

Australia's answer to The Supremes.

Australia's answer to The Supremes.

Set in 1968, a year after Australia expanded the rights of Aborigines (no longer classifying them as “flora and fauna” as a title card helpfully points out), The Sapphires is the sort-of true story of a group of Aboriginal soul-singers and their white manager as they struggle with discrimination and racial identity during a USO tour of Vietnam. This would be Vietnam at the height of US involvement, the Sapphires arrival coming, presumably, just after the Tet Offensive. And, in terms of the civil rights movement, it’s the same year as Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination – an event actually used in the film, with a group of horrified Koori watching the newscast on their credulity straining black-and-white backyard television.

Pretty intense stuff, right? Nah.

The Sapphires is a light-hearted romp, a musical in the same vein as Dreamgirls, that takes great pains to not be the least bit edgy. Vietnam, in fact, has never looked cleaner, and the khaki-clad citizens have never looked healthier and happier. (Paraphrasing the only line from a Vietnamese character in the film: “Sir, you have a phone call.”) The US soldiers are universally respectful and even-keeled (well, except the one really racist soldier we meet during the light-skinned soul singer’s emotional climax – but he probably dies!), not on any drugs stronger than some hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes, and certainly not suffering through a massive and hopeless quagmire. At one point, we even meet a black female army officer! Certainly ahead of her time.

So, The Sapphires doesn’t bring the raw intensity and realism of, say, Good Morning Vietnam, but at least its heart is in the right place. Granted, it plays fast and loose with the period details, with every scene run through some kind of post-production filter set on ‘Disney Channel’ and a more cynical reviewer might regard this glossiness, these errors of omission, as diminishing of the real world struggle faced by Aborigines or, say, African American soldiers. (There’s no real parallel drawn between the Koori soul-singers and the black soldiers – other than lusting after each other, I guess – a bewildering missed opportunity.) But whatever! It’s just a musical set in Vietnam, you guys. Lighten up.

If we accept the gilded fantasy world of The Sapphires, the problem with the film becomes that it just isn’t that funny. Chris O’Dowd (of IT Crowd and Girls fame) tries his damndest with largely flaccid material, never really nailing the right balance between sleazy manager and lovable drunkard. The four singers are all given their moments of comedy, but only sexpot Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) lands with any consistency. The camera tends to linger after jokes, like it’s pausing for a studio audience to yuck it up, or waiting for the actors to sell these bits with a knowing glance at the camera and a burst of jazz-hands.

A post-film tag informs us that The Sapphires is written by Tony Briggs, son of one of the real life Koori soul-singers that toured Vietnam. It’s adapted from a play Briggs wrote and I think some of the gags and storylines might play better on the stage. The singing certainly would. The film opened huge in its native Australia last year, though, so what do I know?

VERDICT:  Skip it. The Sapphires is sweet and sentimental, and thus easily mocked, but it’s not an overly terrible film, so there’s that. If you like happy movies where people sing, it’s for you!

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