In the early to mid-1960s, a girl who loved rock music had few options for getting involved. She could date a guy in a band, thus becoming part of their entourage. She could become a music teacher, passing her love of music on to children. She could even try her hand at singing, although the solo pop stardom of the top female artists provided little of the camaraderie found in the typical rock band. No wonder, then, that so many music-loving ladies turned to girl groups. Formed on street corners, in church choir lofts, or after school in the gymnasium, these groups allowed young women to join together in song, harmonizing and sympathizing with each other over catchy pop beats. The most popular girl groups formed in the United States (the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Shangri-Las, Martha and the Vandellas), but time has revealed that so many girls around the world had caught the music bug, too. This is where The Sapphires picks up, in the outback of Australia.
Maternal Gail, amorous Cynthia, and teenaged mother Julie are sisters, living on the indigenous reservation provided by the Australian government. Having spent their childhood singing harmony with each other, the sisters have a bond that goes deeper than blood. Bored, and unable to stand the poverty of the reservation for one more day, the girls are desperate to get out. They brave racist catcalls in the town to perform in a talent contest, and there they meet Irish Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd). He promises them that if they’ll stop singing country songs and start singing soul instead, he’ll help them find stardom. When the girls show Dave an ad promising singing groups a small fortune to perform for troops in Vietnam, he manages to convince their parents to let their daughters go. Before they can audition, Dave puts them through a grueling rehearsal process, shifts lead singing duties from Gail to Julie, and adds a fourth member to the group: the girls’ cousin, Kay. A light-skinned indigenous woman, Kay was kidnapped as a child by the Australian government and raised “white” in the city (a sadly commonplace practice that continued until the 1970s). The tension in the group mounts, but they land the gig in Vietnam. Suddenly thrust into danger, the girls find their new freedom both terrifying and exhilarating. Gail experiences mixed emotions as she feels obligated to care for her sisters, even as she is strangely drawn to Dave…who has a secret that threatens to tear the group apart.
With just the right mix of humor and pathos, The Sapphires is an engaging look at a time and place (Vietnam, 1960s) through new (indigenous Australian girls’) eyes. Chris O’Dowd is highly entertaining as Dave, the songs are classics, and the chemistry between the female leads is authentic. It is hardly a revelation that the story is based on an actual group called The Sapphires who went to Vietnam—as history has shown us, a girl’s love of music can take her anywhere. Above all else, The Sapphires stands as a paean to the sisterhood of harmony that reaches around the globe.