After seeing his directorial debut, “The Sapphires,” win audience awards at film festivals on several continents, Wayne Blair knows it’s a crowd-pleaser. But there are more than laughs, romance and soul classics in this tale of Australian Aboriginal singers who take a Supremes-like act to napalm-singed Vietnam in 1968.
“It’s an upbeat film,” says the actor and director in a sturdy Down Under accent. “It’s a feel-good film. But . . . ”
That “but” is telling. “The Sapphires,” which opens Friday, is also a primer on Australian racial politics. That reflects the script, which is based on a real-life events, and also the filmmakers’ backgrounds.
“This is a film that’s co-written by an indigenous person,” says Blair by phone during a U.S. promotional tour. “The cinematographer’s indigenous, the director’s indigenous, the choreographer’s indigenous. So the chefs around the broth are a little bit more involved, you know?”
The movie’s cut is four minutes shorter than the original version, but parts have been added as well as subtracted. For non-Australian viewers, Blair notes, “a lot of the stuff in this film is new information. About politics, about Aboriginal people, and about this true story. We just tried to keep it simple.”
One addendum is an opening title that reports a startling historical reality: Until 1967, Aboriginal Australians were officially classified as “flora and fauna.”
“Yeah,” responds Blair slowly when asked about the statement. “It’s just a fact, I suppose. It’s just a fact of my country.”
In Australia, he explains, “everybody understands that. They might not know the date, but everyone has a feeling of that. Whereas in other countries around the world, it’s quite foreign to them.”
Like “Dreamgirls,” the much slicker Hollywood musical to which it has been compared, “The Sapphires” employs the 1960s push for racial equality as part of its conceptual backdrop. “The American civil rights movement started a lot of things around the world,” Blair says. “It was a great example of what black people could do. Aboriginal people in my country took that blueprint. You’d have marches; we’d have marches. I don’t know if you guys know that, though.”
The movie’s more personal strand of history is the tale of four singers recruited by American booking agents to tour Vietnam. At the time, Australian troops were also fighting in the country, where the director’s father did a stint with the infantry. But Blair doubts that his country would have recruited indigenous singers to perform overseas in 1968.
Word of the vocal quartet’s tour, Blair recounts, tumbled out in a casual conversation between writer Tony Briggs and his mother. “I think they were just talking about day-to-day events in the family, and she goes, ‘That reminds of the time we went to Vietnam to sing songs for the American troops during the Vietnam War.’ And he was just like, ‘Whoa whoa whoa! Can you say that last bit again?’ And she began to tell him the story.” (Blair also notes that “when Tony’s mum went over, she wasn’t even counted as a citizen.”)
Briggs, who was born the year before his mother’s unlikely adventure, first turned the family story into a stage musical, which premiered in Melbourne in 2004. The role of Jimmy, one of the Sapphires’ back-home boyfriends, went to Blair. Jimmy largely disappeared in the screen version, but Blair was offered a chance to direct the movie, which was co-written by Keith Thompson.
In retrospect, the director realizes it was an ambitious undertaking. “My first feature film, a $10 million budget, a period film, with soul music and choreography, shot in Saigon — yes, on paper it sounds like a task. But we did it. Fortunately, things turned out my way.”
Blair brought a theater ethic to the production. The women who play the Sapphires — Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell — had to do their own dance moves and much of the singing. Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, who plays the group’s scruffy road manager and sometime accompanist, learned rudimentary piano.
“About 40 percent of the singing is protected by other singers,” Blair concedes of the movie’s versions of “Land of 1000 Dances,” “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” and other soul staples. “But Jess, who plays the youngest girl, it’s 100 percent her voice.”
The goal, the director says, was “to keep it real. I remember when I heard Andrew Strong sing, when he was drunk at the wedding in ‘The Commitments,’ ” the 1991 movie about a Dublin soul-revival band. “Whoa! That just knocked me off my feet. Having Jess sing all the songs live was a little bit of a risk, but it definitely paid off.”
Blair also extols the usefulness of dance rehearsals. “I think for any film, whether it be the next James Bond or the next Batman, or what have you, let’s get everyone just dancing. For a week or two, every afternoon in a studio, you choreograph a dance routine.”
“You walk out of that and you’re sweating and you can smell each other,” he adds. “It’s a little bit disgusting, but you feel good afterwards. That’s what happened with our girls, obviously. In those two weeks, they became an instant family.”
Building camaraderie among the four actresses, who play sisters and cousins, was key. But it also simply appeals to the filmmaker. “I love it when we’re all on the same team,” he says. “You’re having wins every day. Not monetary wins, or trophies of any sort. Just, we shot that scene the way we want to do it! We’re dictating to life, and life’s not dictating to us.”
It’s that balance of purpose and pleasure that drives “The Sapphires,” and allows it to be both indignant and blithe. “It’s just good to remind people of past injustices,” Blair says. “We want people to leave the cinema knowing a bit more about Australia, but also feeling more human again.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.