Sixties girl groups are the unsung heroes of the American Civil Rights Movement. Using perfect pop as a vehicle, they smuggled black faces and voices into the racist mainstream. But did you know a girl group also played a role in Australian history?
Co-writer Tony Briggs did. His mother was a member of the real Sapphires, whose fictional counterparts are portrayed here. Raised in an aboriginal community, they form a singing group and, with the help of down-on-his-luck muso Dave (Chris O’Dowd), secure a gig entertaining the troops in Vietnam.
When we’re first introduced to Dave, he’s wearing Ray-Bans, smoking rollies and is soundtracked by Sam & Dave’s ‘Soul Man’. In short; he’s cool. Casting directors usually seem content to let Chris O’Dowd be Chris O’Dowd, but while he’s an Irishman again here, he is playing against nerdy type - and it suits him.
Otherwise, there’s a lot here that rings familiar: our heroines are spunky, spiky Sheilas who won’t let anyone else tell them what they can or can’t do; they’ve got an uphill struggle for acceptance; a few romances along the way; and a lot of great music.
Given this tone, it’s all the more surprising that The Sapphires is brave enough to tackle race issues head on. Hollywood films set in an equivalent period often skirt the issue or, like The Help , substitute a ‘safer’ white protagonist. The Sapphires has no time for such misplaced sensitivities. The group introduce their first gig – in an all-white country club - with the line "Just so’s you know, you’re all standing on blackfella country!" and they don’t get any less confrontational as the film progresses.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its cheesy moments, The Sapphires have a peculiar habit of resolving their arguments in song, for instance. But ultimately this is a film that knows the power of Motown to get an audience on side – and it’s not afraid to use it.