Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Sapphires

2012 - Dir: Wayne Blair
Shown at the FeckenOdeon on 14th February, 2014

This is a light hearted film but the plight of Australia’s native people is hardly the jewel in that county’s crown. Until 1967 Australian law classed Aboriginal people as "flora or fauna." The government had the authority to remove light-skinned native children from their families as part of a program (depicted in "Rabbit-Proof Fence") to make them part of the white community. It’s against this background that the film is set. The fact that it’s based on a real group and that they did indeed become successful despite all the odds is encouraging - but one fears that it is not the end of the story of Aboriginal repression. The film is co-written by the son of one of the real-life singers and directed by Wayne Blair, who starred in the play based on their story, "The Sapphires" is clearly a labour of love for all involved. It's also a warm tribute to four women for whom success as performers was just the beginning.
The film is only partially accurate - there really was an all-female Australian aboriginal singing group named The Sapphires in the 1960s, although originally there were three of them: Laurel Robinson (the mother of screenwriter Tony Briggs), Beverly Briggs and Naomi Mayers. They performed at hotels, pubs, cabarets, clubs, parties, army barracks and universities around Melbourne. When they were invited to Vietnam to perform for the troops, Briggs and Mayers declined, as they were against the war, so Robinson enlisted her sister Lois Peeler to join her. In Vietnam, the duo of Robinson and Peeler performed backing vocals for a New Zealand Maori band they had performed with in Melbourne. It was this Maori band who introduced them to soul music; the character of Dave Lovelace, portrayed in the film by Chris O'Dowd, did not exist.... but without him there would have been no love story... and without the feisty four it wouldn’t have been half as entertaining. There was controversy surrounding the film’s American release when the distributor chose to promote Chris O’Dowd as the “star” and relegated the band to the background. 
The Sapphires was an enormous box office success in its native country - the biggest earner of 2012. Despite a clutch of awards from film festivals around the world, the big distributors chose to ignore it. It received minimum publicity for a minimal release of just 5 weeks at “selected screens” in the UK  and fared equally poorly in the USA. As is often the case it has been left to community cinemas and film societies to pick up the pieces and the film has been showing throughout the country to packed and appreciative houses. We’re delighted to be part of this “underground” circuit.

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