Rhythm of life moves director of 'The Sapphires'
Wayne Blair pours heart into story of '60s aboriginal girl group
While the trek of girl groups in 1960s has been explored in the past few years with films like "Dreamgirls" in 2006 and "Sparkle" last August, there's something wonderfully refreshing about the new musical dramedy "The Sapphires."
An Australian production directed by Aussie native Wayne Blair, "The Sapphires" -- which received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes last year -- sings a much different metaphorical tune, mostly because of where the group originated.
"It's just about looking at things in a different way," Blair told me in a recent interview. "The film is about a girl group, but they just happen to be four aboriginal girls and their back story is a little bit different."
Expanding into more theaters Friday, "The Sapphires" tells the story of sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy), and their cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who, under the guidance of an R&B-loving Irish musician (Chris O'Dowd), travel hundreds of miles from home in 1968 to perform for the U.S. troops in Vietnam.
A hit in clubs with the troops, the girls and Dave are even willing to take risks to bring the music to places that could cost them their lives.
"The Sapphires" is even more remarkable in that the tale itself is based on true story of co-screenwriter Tony Briggs' mother, Laurel Robinson.
"She went across to Vietnam in 1968 and sung for the American troops," Blair said. "Along with her cousin, they even went to the front line to sing for them. Apart from what Bob Hope was doing, the troops just wanted to hear some soul music to remind them of home."
Much like director Baz Luhrmann's vastly underrated 2008 drama "Australia," "The Sapphires" addresses the country's "stolen generations," a seldom discussed part of history where mixed-race children of Australian whites and aboriginals were taken from their parents by the government and church missions.
"The three sisters come from one family and their first cousin is taken away, and for whatever rhyme or reason, she later finds herself back into that mix with the other girls," Blair explained. "It's great to bleed this story into the film, because it's something that my country, let alone America don't talk enough about. It's good to share it with the world, and maybe politicize it a little bit, but overall share it as a human story."
Playing a pivotal role in "The Sapphires" is O'Dowd, the affable Irish actor whose breakthrough role in America came as Kristen Wiig's police officer boyfriend in the 2011 blockbuster comedy "Bridesmaids."
Even though O'Dowd has been in the entertainment business for quite a while, Blair admits he didn't see the actor's work, like so many other people, until "Bridesmaids." After that, the director said he further explored O'Dowd's work in such British projects as the sitcom "The IT Crowd" and the under-appreciated comedy "Pirate Radio" (aka "The Boat that Rocked" in the UK).
"Chris was such breath of fresh air," Blair recalled. "There's a scene of him (in 'Pirate Radio') where he lip-syncs with a song that's playing while on the job as a radio host after he's broken up with his wife. It's a beautiful moment in the film that's quite funny. But he actually goes to that place of sadness and hurt, too. He gives it his all."
As for his turn in "The Sapphires," Blair, 42, said he was naturally impressed with O'Dowd, and furthermore, moved by the actor's commitment to the project.
"He could have done anything (after 'Bridesmaids'), but he came down to Australia to do this little indie film," Blair enthused.
While "The Sapphires" features mostly soul music, the film also features a little bit of country & western music, which is torpedoed to great comedic effect in the film by O'Dowd's character, Dave Lovelace.
Blair must caution, though, that country fans in America and around the globe shouldn't take the jokes too seriously.
"That's we sort of lie a little bit in the film, because we aboriginal people and Australian people, we love country and western," Blair said, laughing. "We love Merle Haggard, George Strait, Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. They're all in our iTunes playlists, and I'm sure they're in O'Dowd's playlist as well."
The great thing is, Blair added, is that you don't have to be a fan of any particular genre of music to be moved by "The Sapphires."
"It's very much a human story and a little bit of love creeps in there as well," Blair said. "It sort of has this Dorothy and 'Wizard of Oz' feel, where you go away into a war zone and you come back home, and that's where your love and your life is. That's who you are and that's where you can come to know yourself a little bit better."
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