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
View Edition

From the front page

Nuclear fallout

The waves from Australia’s cancelled submarine contract keep building

Image of Colson Whitehead's ‘Harlem Shuffle’

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead

The author of ‘The Underground Railroad’ offers a disappointingly straightforward neo-noir caper set in the early ’60s

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook) and Industry Minister Christian Porter (image via Sky News).

The standard you walk past

Ministerial standards breach or no, there is something deeply wrong with the government’s principles

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best


In This Issue

Martin Amis in 2010. © Xavier Betral/EPA

Top Dog

Martin Amis’ 'Lionel Asbo: State of England'

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Comment: A New Dusk

Man About Town

Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, 30 July 1973. © Richard Nixon Library and Museum

How Whitlam rattled the ANZUS alliance

Dear Mr President


Read on

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

Image of Covid-19 vaccines

Dissent horizon

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?

Detail of cover image from ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’, showing a woman’s head resting on a pillow

Living to regret: ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’

With an exasperating but charming protagonist, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s episodic novella demonstrates faultless comic timing