Soothing the Savage Beast

Music can have a palliative effect on humans. While it doesn’t address the actual pains or sickness a person is afflicted with, it can ease that pain or make the sickness recede so it’s manageable. Music lifts the soul so that we can overcome trials and tribulations. That aspect of music is on display in a small gem of a movie from Australia called The Sapphires.

Australia had its own shameful history of racial inequality that mirrored the United States, only their problem wasn’t with those brought there to be slaves, but rather with the people who inhabited Australia before the coming of white men – the Aborigines. The government in the 1950s classified the Aborigines not as people, but rather as flora and fauna. In effect, they were viewed as weeds to be eliminated. One of the most shameful activities the government indulged in was the kidnapping of children who could pass for white. They were taken from their families and educated in white ways.

The Sapphires is “based on a true story” – usually dangerous words, though at the end it shows the people on whom it was based, their later accomplishments, and an unusual connection between the film and the women portrayed.

In 1968, two Aboriginal sisters and a cousin, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), are living on a farming station in the Australian outback, though they dream of making music.  Julie is still a teenager, though she’s already had a child with one of the young men on the station.  Another boy there proposed to her, but ended up getting cold feet and breaking off the engagement.  They travel to the nearest town where there’s a talent contest taking place, and they’re clearly the best singers, but the contest is won by a pretty blond from town.

However, they meet Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a musician from Melbourne who recognizes their talent.  The girls usually sang country and western music, which amuses Lovelace.  “That’s fine, we all make mistakes,” he says.  “But here is what we learn from that mistake. Country and western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is in country and western music, they’ve lost, they’ve given up and they are just all wining about it. In soul music they are struggling to get it back, they haven’t given up.”  Julie has found an advertisement for acts to entertain US servicemen in Vietnam, and on a dare from the girls, Dave arranges for an audition.

When they get to Melbourne, the girls look up their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens).  When they were children, they always sang as a foursome, until the government came and took the fair-skinned Kay away.  Now she’s working in a hospital in Melbourne and is totally absorbed into the white culture.  (When she first appears, she’s hosting a Tupperware party for her friends.)  Kay decides to join the others again.  They have a lot of work to do.  Gail, the most outspoken of the group, has always sung lead, but Dave moves Julie into that role since she has the strongest voice.  Dave schools them in soul music, and their first endeavors are awkward, but slowly they learn how to perform.  When the audition takes place, they impress the Army representatives and are hired.  At first Vietnam is a dream for them, but eventually they are brutally brought to the reality that they’re in a war zone.

O’Dowd was a delight in Bridesmaids as the Canadian/American policeman Rhodes (he’s actually from Ireland originally).  Here he’s even better, carrying the film both as comic relief and romantic lead.  Jessica Mauboy was a runner-up on “Australian Idol” and has also appeared on the Australian versions of “The Voice” and “The X-Factor.”  Her singing is wonderful, but she also imbues Julie with a powerful feistiness, a woman who won’t be put down.  The person who steals the film, though, is Deborah Mailman.  As Dave points out, Gail is the mama bear who protects the others.  It’s a fierce performance that sticks in your memory.

The movie was filmed in both Australia and Vietnam, which adds to the authenticity.  The music featured is first-rate, and will set your toes a’tapping.  Made in 2012, Bob and Harvey Weinstein have imported it to the States, where it’s playing mostly in art houses.  If you get the chance to see it, it’s well worth your time.

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