Musical Messages

Director Wayne Blair fills ‘The Sapphires’ with soul songs to underscore its themes

In “The Sapphires,” Chris O’Dowd, left, manages a band (Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell).
In “The Sapphires,” Chris O’Dowd, left, manages a band (Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell).

“The Sapphires” is an Australian movie about four Aboriginal women who tour Vietnam in 1968 with their Irish manager while singing American music. Small world, huh? The movie, based on a true story, was the highest-grossing Australian film of 2012; it’s currently playing at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in D.C. Director Wayne Blair (who is also of Aboriginal descent) talks about the importance of the movie’s music.

There is a lot of singing in the film. Do you consider it a musical?
We thought of it as a drama with music. Every time they sing a song, there’s a meaning to it, underlying a sort of truth. It informs where the girls are at.

The girls originally sing country and western music before moving to soul. Were both genres popular in the ’60s?
Aboriginal people grew up on George Strait, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline … That music transcended people. People get sad, people fall in love — those songs just resonate and you can play them again and they get better with time. The biggest part of soul music is someone of color is singing that song, and can have you singing [along] in a way that you feel that there’s hope.

Did you eventually get sick of the music after shooting?
Yeah, I did. When the film came out, I was like, “I don’t want to hear another soul song. Don’t give me Aretha. I don’t want to hear a Jackson 5 song. Give me a bit of Coldplay.”

And now?
When the film’s CD came out, I just thought, “I’ll put this CD in, even though I’m sick of the songs.” “Land of 1,000 Dances” came on, and I thought, “I can see why people are liking this film now.” I’m loving soul again.

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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