As young children, the McCrae sisters, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), were forming a promising singing group with their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). But the quartet barely got off the ground before Kay was seized by the authorities and taken from her family while she was recuperating in a hospital.
Unfortunately, the girls were growing up in Australia at a time when the law allowed fair-skinned aborigines, like Kay, to be taken from their mothers and placed with Caucasian families so they could be raised in accordance with the “White Ways.” Consequently, half-caste Kay had virtually no contact with her indigenous culture or any of her relatives over the next decade.
By 1968, however, Gail, Julie, and Cynthia were old enough to track their cousin down, and when they found her, they persuaded her to run away with them. Soon after, the four youths entered a local amateur competition as a country music act.
Although they were not the favorites of the audience that day, they did impress Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who recognized their potential, and convinced them to change their repertoire to popular Motown tunes. In short order, he became the quartet’s piano player, conductor, choreographer, and manager, and whipped his diamond in a rough into Australia’s version of The Supremes and was able to arrange for them to perform for the troops over in Vietnam.
Based on the stage play of the same name, The Sapphires recounts the group’s harrowing, real-life experiences when they arrived in Southeast Asia during the bloody Tet offensive. The movie marks the impressive debut of aborigine Wayne Blair, a gifted actor-turned-director who does a remarkable job of subtly recreating the political climate of the turbulent 60s.
For instance, Blair effectively employs the iconic clip of Muhammad Ali refusing to serve in the army (“No Viet Cong ever called me a [N-word].”) to convey the growing opposition to the war. Nevertheless, blinded by a combination of naivete and the pay, our four heroines find themselves in the middle of a war zone with little preparation for the unspeakable horrors they are about to witness.
With no choice but to make the best of a bad situation, they proceed to put on a number of very well-received shows as the tour takes them closer and closer to the frontlines. However, amidst the insanity of war, they somehow find time for reverie, reflection, and even a little romance.
A well-deserved tribute to four Australian women who risked their lives to entertain the boys.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for violence, profanity, sexuality, smoking, and mature themes. Running time: 98 minutes. Distributor: The Weinstein Company.