It turns out that it wasn’t just Bob Hope and Ann-Margret putting on shows for the American troops in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. The Sapphires tells the story of four young Australian aboriginal women who answer a newspaper ad for performers to entertain in Vietnam. The conditions are terrible, but they have a wonderful time.
Why would they be happier as war-zone singers than back home “out back?” That’s the heart of the story.
The action begins in 1968. According to the helpful info at the film’s opening, this means that the girls had been considered full citizens only for a year. Before that, aborigines were officially considered part of the “flora and fauna” by the Australian government. The film deftly interweaves this disgraceful legacy into the family’s back story. Faced with limited prospects at home, their motivation is clear.
Sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) join up with their long-lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), and under the woozy tutelage of failed cruise-ship entertainer Dave (scene-stealer Chris O’Dowd), learn the necessary moves to become an American-style girl group. One of the film’s more amusing notes is that the women would prefer to sing country music—the first time we hear them, they’re killing it with a Merle Haggard song—and are slow to warm to soul music.
The musical numbers are terrific, and have a terrific energy—which comes from the actors, who make each character compelling. There’s a credible amount of verisimilitude, thanks to some location shooting in Ho Chi Minh City and a generous helping of CGI. The story can’t avoid the usual showbiz clichés, but at least has the decency not to wallow in them. (These include the ambitious younger sister who’s a little bit prettier and a lot more talented, and the alcoholic manager with a heart of gold.) The film is good on the details: The civilian band backing the group is integrated, but when the Sapphires play with a U.S. military band, it’s all white.
Perhaps the starkest revelation comes at the end: In any other showbiz musical, the group would go on to greater fame and fortune. The Sapphires don’t become the Australian version of the Supremes. There’s a talent-show audience at the beginning of the film who reject the sisters simply because of who they are; it turns out that this audience is a stand-in for the rest of white Australia. And the coda, which shows what happened to the real-life group the musical is (very loosely) based on, paints a very different, but probably more fulfilling, outcome for these women.