The Sapphires Wayne Blair

The Sapphires Wayne Blair
The Sapphires sing a deadly version of Otis Redding's "That's How Strong My Love Is." In fact, the whole movie is deadly, to steal the expression right out of actress Deborah Mailman's mouth.

First a popular stage play by the same name, and now a possible Oscar contender, Wayne Blair's debut feature (based on the script by playwright Tony Briggs, who is the son of one of the original Sapphires) follows the journey of four Aboriginal girls who leave their mission in Australia to entertain U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War.

A cross between Dreamgirls (just because that's what everyone says) and, oh, what the hell, 8 Mile, The Sapphires is a sure hit on U.S. soil – if it's good enough for Harvey Weinstein, then it's usually good enough for America.

The Sapphires opens on a traditional Aboriginal mission in Australia during the '60s. Sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy, the former Australian Idol runner-up), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and cousin Kaye (Shari Sebbens) sing a lovely version of a song about Moses. Parents clap their hands, looking up in wonder at their beautiful daughters.

Then (as we learn later), disaster strikes. White men, as per usual, barge in, in their black hats and black Oldsmobiles (or whatever the Australian equivalent is), looking to snatch up the palest of the children to raise in a white home and teach white ways. In other words, they're looking to gradually wean the Aboriginal out of the Aboriginals. They end up abducting Kaye, much to Gail's dismay, who, as the eldest, feels responsible for her cubs.

But fortunately for the girls, as well as the audience, the Sapphires do receive their due time in the sun. After getting tossed out of a local saloon for being black, the three sisters, minus cousin Kaye, are "discovered" by drunkard ex-cruise ship entertainer Dave (Chris O'Dowd), who, upon running out of petrol, realizes the girls are his one-way ticket to fortune.

There's a moment near the end of the film, after the girls have toured all around Vietnam performing, when the Sapphires get to do a show at one of the bigger venues. The show occurs at the climax of the film, when, quite naturally, we expect the belting, tear-jerking performance of a lifetime from starlet Julie.

However, in Blair's film (and Briggs's story), that's hardly how the cookie crumbles. Instead of sticking with powerhouse Julie as lead singer, the girls elect mama bear Gail, who has the weakest voice of them all, to lead the song. Why? Simply to reinstate natural order – something the girls lost a long time ago. (eOne)