A Feel Good Joyful Funny Film: The Sapphires

Me and Scott took the day off last week to go to the movies. I cannot remember the last time we did that. Sat down in an actual cinema with actual other people and watched a movie. It was a great audience. We mocked the Australian-Mining-Will-Save-the-Environment ad together. Then we laughed and cried and cheered our way through The Sapphires.

The Sapphires restored my faith in movies. I was on the verge of sticking to TV and never bothering with movies again. The Sapphires pulled me back from that brink. I walked out of that cinema elated and happy and almost a week later the feeing hasn’t worn off yet.

For those not in Australia, The Sapphires is a new movie about an Aboriginal girl group who performed for the US troops in Vietnam in the late 60s. It is now screening in Australia and France and will be released in NZ in October and UK in November. It will also be screening in the USA but I haven’t been able to find out when yet.

If you get a chance to see it DO SO.

The Sapphires is a biopic in that it is based on the lives of a real Aboriginal girl group who performed in Vietnam in the 1960s. But unlike so many biopics, such as Ray, there’s no boring bit after they get famous and take to drugs/alcohol and then are redeemed because The Sapphires don’t become famous. It’s not that movie.

It’s also astonishingly gorgeous. The cinematography by Warwick Thornton, the director of the also visually stunning Samson and Delilah, makes everything and everyone glow. When I discovered the budget was less than a million dollars, which for those of you who don’t know is a microscopic budget for a feature-length film, I almost fell over.

Deborah Mailman is, as usual, the standout. She’s been my favourite Australian actor ever since Radiance in 1998. I would even go see her in a Woody Allen movie1 that is how great my love for her is. Wherever Mailman is on screen that’s where you’re looking. And no matter who she’s playing I find myself on her side. She could play Jack the Ripper and I’d still be on her side.

The Sapphires is a movie where you see the effects of systemic racism AND you get joy and hope and MUSIC. The movie was upbeat and heartbreaking and funny and left me full of optimism for the entire world. Things do get better! Amazing things can be achieved even in the face of racism and sexism.

The movie manages to convey how the civil rights movement in the USA was important to Aboriginal people in Australia deftly and economically. (I had just been reading about Marcus Garvey’s influence on indigenous politics here in the 1930s, which was an excellent reminder that Australia’s civil rights movement goes back much earlier than most people realise.) It covers a great deal of the terrain of racial politics in Australia in the 1960s without ever losing sight of its genre.

This appears to be a problem for many of the reviewers in Australian newspapers. The reviews are all weirdly tepid in their praise. They refer to The Sapphires as a “feel good” movie and a “crowd pleaser” as if that were a bug not a feature. Um, what? It’s like they went in expecting Samson and Delilah—a great film don’t get me wrong—and are mildly annoyed that this one didn’t rip their heart out and stomp on it. The thinking seems to go: I walked out of The Sapphires wanting to burst into song. It must be lightweight fluff.

The Sapphires is a movie that aims to make you laugh, fill you with joy, jerk some tears from you and to maybe make you think, if you’re white Australian like me, about how deep seated racism is in this country. It succeeds in all of those goals. How does that make it “merely” entertaining? Gah!

I will never understand the attitude that says serious = deep, funny = shallow. It is a widespread view. Take a look at all the award-winning books and films. Very few of them are funny. Or could be described as light. What’s up with that?

I have a list of books and movies I turn to when I’m down. What they have in common is that they are excellently well-made and they make me feel good. It’s a lot harder to write one of those books or make one of those movies than you’d think.

The Sapphires has just joined that list.

  1. I cannnot stand Woody Allen movies []


  1. Danielle on #

    What else is on your feel-good movie/book list?

  2. sean williams on #

    What’s up with that? Beats me, too.

    The mighty Robert Anton Wilson once said: “The greatest discovery I have made in my whole life: If you don’t instinctively want to tap your feet to it, it isn’t good music. It’s only rhetorical noise.” I’m not sure I totally agree (one should never totally agree with anything he said) but at least we’re not alone in wondering.

  3. Sandy on #

    If it evokes an emotional response, whether tears of sorrow or tears of laughter then no one can say it wasn’t a movie worth seeing, IMO.

  4. Justine on #

    Danielle: Bring It On, How She Move, loads of 30s screwball comedies, loads of musicals, Georgette Heyer’s regency novels, Diana Wynne Jones’ novels.

    sean williams: In all seriousness I do think turning this around the other way is just as stupid. I know people who are genuinely entertained by minimalist music I find unlistenable. Who are entertained by Tarkovsky and Woody Allen movies. I would rather die than watch a movie by those two EVER AGAIN.

    No particular set of tastes should be privileged over others.

    Sandy: If it evokes an emotional response, whether tears of sorrow or tears of laughter then no one can say it wasn’t a movie worth seeing, IMO.


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