Upbeat backstage biopic “The Sapphires,” about an Aboriginal girl group, puts the Down Under spin on American docudramas as well as dramas about 1960s Motown. Happily, not every formula crosses over to this winner of eleven awards from the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Wayne Blair directs a blend of a jukebox musical and racial politics lesson based on the 2005 play by Tony Briggs, son of one of the original R&B cover singers. Briggs and co-writer Keith Thompson relate the saga of four Cummeragunja girls who harmonized as kids. Years later they will meet a manager at a local talent show, go to Melbourne for an audition then go on tour singing and shimmying for American troops in Vietnam. The White Australia policy and Black Power movement meet. Cassius Clay and Martin Luther King are on TV. As always, the omissions intrigue. Understandable is streamlining the onscreen quartet from the original trio of cousins, only one of whom went to Vietnam with a non-Sapphire sister as backup singers, not headliners. Two members of the trio had refused to go because they opposed the war and marched in Melbourne’s mass protests. Why not include that barbie The Sapphires hosted for the Jackson Five on their 1973 tour? The plot also skips a grandmother’s suicide by rat poison after the authorities took away kin by force to be raised in the “white ways” dramatized in “Rabbit-Proof Fence” (2002). Nonetheless, the characters are quite likable and the international “race music” message from 1968 resonates. 99m. (Bill Stamets)
“The Sapphires” opens Friday, March 29.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.