Four talented, spunky girls get plucked from obscurity to form a soul-singing girl group that hits it big in the ’60s. But the new film “The Sapphires” isn’t the Australian version of “Dreamgirls.” Director Wayne Blair and writer Tony Briggs went for grit over glitz, and not just because of their modest budget. Authenticity is at the musical heart of this true but little-known story about four Aboriginal women, one of whom happened to be Briggs’s mother.
“We had to keep true to the four original Sapphires. I had to keep it real with an edge of beauty,” says Blair during a recent interview in Boston. “We knew we’d be compared to ‘Sparkle,’ ‘Dreamgirls’ or ‘The Commitments.’ I also looked at ‘Ray,’ and the Tina Turner movie [“What’s Love Got to Do With It”]. . . . We didn’t have the money for bells and whistles. I just had to know when to turn the volume up and when to turn it down.”
Already a hit in its native country, where it won a record 12 Australian Film Institute “Oscars,” “The Sapphires,” which opens here on Friday, was adapted by Briggs from his 2004 stage play. The indigenous quartet in the film is composed of sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and their cousins Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who are discovered by scruffily likable talent scout Dave (“Bridesmaids” star Chris O’Dowd). He converts them from country and western to soul singers — their new repertoire includes Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man” (later covered by Salt-N-Pepa); Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and Smokey Robinson’s “Who’s Loving You.” The Sapphires head to Vietnam in 1968 — just a year after the referendum expanding the rights of Aboriginals in Australia — to sing for American troops.
That the Sapphires’ story didn’t become known in the United States isn’t surprising. But what you would expect to be a pop culture source of pride down under turns out not to be common knowledge in Australia either, says Blair. Many entertainers went to Vietnam during the war, but few were indigenous — Aboriginal people still faced oppression in parts of Australia in the late ’60s and were granted the right to vote only in 1967. The Sapphires disbanded shortly after they returned home, and each of the four women went on to successful careers outside entertainment. Even their families didn’t know much about their youthful against-the-odds adventure until Briggs wrote his play.
Briggs’s mother is Laurel Robinson, who is now in her 60s, as are groupmates Naomi Meyers, Beverly Briggs, and Lois Peeler. Meyers has spent 30 years as chief executive at the Aboriginal Medical Service, where Beverly Briggs and Robinson also work. Peeler became Australia’s first Aboriginal model and is now executive director of a secondary education facility for young Aboriginal women.
“They saw the film in a packed theater in Melbourne and got a huge ovation,” says Blair, who shot the film in Sydney and Saigon. “They’re enjoying the recognition they should have gotten 40 years ago. It’s been eight years [since the play debuted] and now the world will know about them.”
“The Sapphires” marks the directing debut of Blair, 41, who studied acting along with marketing while at Queensland University of Technology. He’s currently starring in “Redfern Now,” an indigenous miniseries in Australia. It was while Blair was performing the role of Cynthia’s boyfriend Jimmy in the play “The Sapphires” that Tony Briggs first approached him about collaborating on a possible movie version.
“The play was a success in Sydney and Tony got a number of offers from producers who wanted to make it into a film,” Blair recalls. “He said he wanted me to direct it, but I never knew the full ramifications of what that meant. I was naive. . . . I never thought that 14 years later I’d be sitting in a hotel in Boston being interviewed about directing a feature film. Acting, yes, but not directing.”
Blair traveled all over the continent to find his Sapphires. “We wanted to unearth four girls, just like ‘American Idol,’ ” he says. “It took eight months. We started with 150 and worked our way down. It was really tough when we hit 16, then 12, and eight, and, finally, four.” As “The Sapphires” became a darling of the festival circuit, art began to imitate life. At the Cannes Film Festival, “a driver was there to pick us up and Cynthia and Gail took photos of their names on his placard. It was crazily beautiful,” says Blair, who grew up in a small town in Queensland and now lives in Sydney.
Mauboy, 23, the runner-up in 2006 on the fourth season of “Australian Idol,” plays the attractive Julie, who becomes the group’s lead singer. Mauboy hails from Darwin, a small, isolated town in the far north. “I knew the film would touch people in Australia because of the history and the issues in it, but I never expected it to be a global hit,” says Mauboy. “We’re all from small towns. When we got to France, then Toronto, and even New York, we were all looking at each other like, ‘Is this really happening?’ ”
True to the film, Mauboy says country-western music still remains popular in Aboriginal communities. “It’s passed from generation to generation. My mother played these songs for me, but she also introduced me to soul.” Mauboy learned the Michael Jackson version of “Who’s Loving You” at a young age; she recently sang it at the after-party for her film’s New York premiere.
Blair says the positive response to the movie is also a credit to the “indigenous actors and filmmakers telling this story about four Aboriginal women.” The film’s opening and closing title cards explain the travesty of Australian government policies still in place up to the early 1970s that forced Aboriginal children from their homes. This forms a subplot in “The Sapphires”: The light-skinned Kay, taken as a child from the community and raised by a white family, must come to terms with her heritage.
“The Stolen Generation,” as it is now called, wasn’t talked about much when Blair was growing up, he says. “It wasn’t generally known unless you knew somebody that it happened to. When they found out about it, many indigenous people could not believe this was the country they lived in. It had to be discussed in a public forum. Artists and creative people still feel moved to discuss it,” he says.
“There have been some great indigenous films in the last few years — ‘Bran Nue Dae,’ ‘Satellite Boy,’ ‘Samson and Delilah,’ which went to Cannes, too. An indigenous surge seems to be happening,” says Blair. “Australia is still coming to terms with its Aboriginal history. So to get four aboriginal women onto the big screen or into people’s living rooms is a big deal. And I’m very proud.”