August 2012

Essays

Adrian Martin

'The Sapphires' by Wayne Blair (director)

'The Sapphires' by Wayne Blair (director), In national release from 9 August

Small town, long grass, children running. In an Australian film, we might expect to hear sweeping orchestral music over these opening images, or, having been informed that the year is 1958, a rock’n’roll standard by Johnny O’Keefe. But the choice for The Sapphires is arrestingly odd: ‘Run Through the Jungle’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival, vintage 1970. It’s not Australian and it’s out of time, but it works, instantly kicking things into gear.

The song sets up a storyline. Three Aboriginal sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), plus their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), like to sing American country and western songs. When Dave (Chris O’Dowd), an Irish visitor with vague connections to the music industry, appoints himself their manager, he makes one stipulation: the sound has to be black soul. Since by this point we are in 1968, The Sapphires head off to Vietnam to perform.

Films about the trials and tribulations of show business tend also to be about themselves – their place in entertainment history, and their prospects for box office success. So The Sapphires, a film about indigenous Australian traditions mixing it with the wider world, is a bold gesture, aimed at impressing the international marketplace. It tries to accommodate as many cultural tastes as possible – and succeeded in attracting America’s Weinstein brothers as executive producers.

Director Wayne Blair juggles this busy material well. It’s the kind of movie that renders standard critical demurrals – that some of the comedic mugging is overdone, that plot links don’t always make sense, that situations at times tip over into unreality – entirely beside the point. Rather, it is the mark of a good mainstream film that it can fly over mundane plausibility issues and niggling narrative questions, with a heightened air of wish-fulfilment fantasy.

Much of the charm of The Sapphires for Australian audiences comes from the way it deliberately falls short of the slick Hollywood music biopic model. It is like a canny mix of Dreamgirls (2006) and Alan Parker’s gritty The Commitments (1991) – with the superb Mailman on hand to deflate any looming sentimentality with her insults and hard truths. Amid all the feel-good vibes, the film even manages, with a salutary shock, to touch upon issues such as the Stolen Generations; it handles this mix of entertainment and populist politics better than Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.

The Sapphires lacks one thing: a big extended musical performance scene. That’s symptomatic: at the end, the film returns to its real-life origin in the indigenous community and, in this sense, turns its back on globalised showbiz. At least it does so on its own proud terms.

Adrian Martin
Adrian Martin is an associate professor at Monash University, and a film and arts critic. His books include Phantasms, Once Upon a Time in America and Movie Mutations. @AdrianMartin25

August 2012

August 2012

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Vanishing voices

The cultural damage of homogenising language

Chalmers fires up

A scrapper from Brisbane’s backblocks won’t be lectured on aspiration

Illustration

At home in the Antarctic

The screenwriters living with the crew of Mawson station

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities


In This Issue

Word: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Hubert Opperman & Bruce Small

Small Fry

The story of a people smuggler

A young boy in Dalworth Children's Home at Seaforth, NSW, in the 1920s. Image courtesy of the State Library of NSW. Photograph: Sam Hood

The Forgotten Ones

Half a million lost childhoods

'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh, Miegunyah Press; $45.00

'The Office: A Hardworking History' by Gideon Haigh


Read on

Image of the University of Sydney

Flat-earthers

The Australian’s crusade on free speech in universities

Image of Quarterly Essay 74, ‘The Prosperity Gospel’, by Erik Jensen

Everymen don’t exist

On the campaign trail with Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten – a Quarterly Essay extract

Image from ‘Fleabag’

Falling for ‘Fleabag’

On the problematic hotness of Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest

Image of Costume at Dark Mofo

Dark Mofo 2019: Costume

The Tasmanian electro-orchestral pop artist makes a beguiling debut in Hobart


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