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Inspired by a true story, “The Sapphires” is a lighthearted film about a serious subject: the legacy of racism in Australia. Four indigenous Australian girls form a family singing group in the ’60s and get a gig touring U.S. military bases Vietnam. Along the way they rebuild family bonds broken by discriminatory government programs. We speak with the film’s Aboriginal director about using comedy to explore social issues.
- Wayne Blair Director, "The Sapphires"
‘The Sapphires’ Official Trailer
‘The Sapphires’ Photos
1968 was the year the planet went haywire. And for four young Aboriginal women from a remote mission in rural Australia, 1968 was the year their lives changed forever. Inspired by a true story, “The Sapphires” is a triumphant celebration of self-discovery, family and music.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, food Wednesday explores the rise of ramen as Washingtonians seem to be flocking to restaurants for this noodle soup. But first, inspired by a true story, "The Sapphires" is a light-hearted film about a serious subject -- the legacy of discrimination in Australia. The year? 1968. Four young, indigenous Australian girls growing up on an aboriginal mission, formed a music group singing country and Western tunes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey've got a lot of obstacles to overcome, including the racism of their white neighbors. They meet a somewhat hapless music promoter but he somehow molds them into a soul group, The Sapphires. And he helps them land a gig touring U.S. military bases in Vietnam. The Sapphires did not go on to take Australia and the world by storm, but the new film about their lives is doing just that.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISo meet the director, Wayne Blair. He's the director "The Sapphires." It's opening here in the U.S. on March 22. Wayne Blair, thank you for joining us.
MR. WAYNE BLAIROh, lovely to be here, Kojo. Lovely to be here.
NNAMDIGlad you're here with us. Tell us about the film. What's the story of "The Sapphires"?
BLAIRWell, yeah, it's basically about these four aboriginal women in 1968, meet this Irish guy, this Irish ex-musician roustabout played by Chris O'Dowd of "Bridesmaids" fame and they go to Vietnam and sing soul music to the American troops on the front line, as I said, in the Vietnam War. It's about love, life, loss, all in the backbone of, you know, soul music. Smokey Robinson, Aretha, The Staple Singers.
BLAIRBut the point of difference is these four aboriginal girls from a country town in Australia doing their thing. So, yes, yes, that's what it's about.
NNAMDIIt sounds like something that somebody made up. But this is based on a true story.
BLAIRYeah. It's the co-writer of the film, Tony Briggs, his mom's -- it's his mom's story, it's his mom's and aunt's story. They had a girl group in 1968. They're based in Melbourne called The Sapphires. And they did their thing and then they went to Vietnam. They went to Vietnam to perform for the troops.
NNAMDIHow did the real Sapphires feel about the film?
BLAIRThey're really -- they're beautiful, like, in their 60s. But, you know, you got to -- Australia is a different country a little bit to a certain extent of what you think. And, you know, when they did see the film, they loved it. But they were like, you know what, you know, Wayne, like, do you like the film? I said, yeah, I like the film. Do you like the film? I said, look, do you think the world will like this?
BLAIRWhat do you think people will think? You know, they're very humble and generous. But, you know, they're -- their hard work is back in Sydney, Australia. So, you know, I think they get it, they finally get it. But now the world has embraced it. But, yeah, as I say, they're very humble.
NNAMDIYeah, make sure you tell them that the world likes the film. This film hits some heavy themes, and yet it's a very entertaining musical comedy. Why did you decide to come at it this serious topic by way of humor?
BLAIRWell, I think Tony Briggs, it's his mom's story. But being one of the co-writers, it's always been our mission statement to, I suppose, bleed a part of the Australian politics into it. You know, so -- and, you know, there's a correlation between the American civil rights movement and what was happening to aboriginal people in the late '60s. So we always wanted to make it universal, to make it international.
BLAIRNow, we never thought the film would travel as much as it did. But that was one of the main reason. Sort of just to -- sort of to show Australia, to sort of put that mirror up to the Australian politics, the Australian government at the time and by using a little bit of what was happening with the American civil rights movement.
NNAMDIThe four -- the young women at the center of this film are all aboriginal and two were completely unknown, if you will, actors. Of course, I guess a few people may have known about them but they were not widely known. Why did you make that choice and how did you find the actors?
BLAIRWell, yeah, just like the four girls back in the day. I mean, they were sort of unknowns and they had good voices and good, yeah, they just had -- they were just a great little group. And so, we wanted to find, unearth some new talent in Australia, just like these four girls that really wanted to do this film. So a little bit like "Australian Idol," "American Idol" or "The Voice," we just had to -- we tried to unearth people from everywhere in Australia.
BLAIRWe got them, these last four, and you're right, the oldest girl in the film, Gayle, played by Deb Mailman, she's a very experienced Australian actress. The youngest girl came second in "Australian Idol" and she's had some experience. But the middle two had no experience. But, you know, they did graduate from an acting college called NIDA in Sydney which Cate Blanchett and Judy Davis and Mel Gibson went to. So...
NNAMDIThat's why I said unknown to some.
BLAIROh, unknown to some. But still, this their first project on camera.
NNAMDITheir first feature film.
BLAIRYeah, first feature film, first anything, TV, documentary, short film.
NNAMDIOne of these characters, the music promoter, Dave Loveless is played by Chris O'Dowd. Some will remember him from the "Bridesmaids." How did you get him involved?
BLAIRWell, it was a sort of last piece to the puzzle. It was originally -- the role was written for an Englishman, a white Englishman. And we sort of couldn't find him. So I said no. So we went to L.A. I went to L.A. really and I was in L.A. and just went to the agents, the producers flew me over. And his agent sort of said, oh you got to see this guy, Chris O'Dowd. He's in this thing called "Bridesmaids." It made $26 million the last weekend.
BLAIRAnd I was like, okay. I went to the Arclight that afternoon, saw Chris O'Dowd in the film. And I said to the producers, we got to get this guy. Basically that's what happened. And fortunately for us three weeks later, he signed on to do the film.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Wayne Blair. He directed the film, "The Sapphires." It opens here in the U.S. on March 22nd. You've won a whole lot of awards for this film, including cleaning up at the Australian Oscars, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television, something like 12 awards, including Best Film, Best Director. But it's my understanding that the film received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
NNAMDII've never been to a film that received a 10-minute standing ovation. Is that a response you expected? How do you respond to that response?
BLAIROh, no, it was like -- it was the first Saturday night in Cannes. It was the midnight screening. Apparently, the pole position screening. You had 2,300 people at the Lumiere Cinema, one of the best cinemas in the world. And 2,300 French people got up at the end of the film and started clapping. And I thought it might finish after about 10 seconds. I was being polite. I was waving to them. Thank you very much. Yes, thank you very much.
BLAIRTen minutes later, Kojo, 10 minutes and they were still clapping. And, you know, it was...
NNAMDIThat's beyond being polite.
BLAIRIt was beautiful. It was beautiful. And then, you know, you come out into that red carpet where you walked out, and you got a thousand photographers. And the cast is there, Harvey Weinstein's there, the whole crew and the producers are there. And then Sam and Dave comes on, you know, "Soul Man"?
BLAIR"Soul Man" comes on so we started dancing. So I -- in front of these photographers, we just started dancing because it was just like a lot of the air had been sort of left out of them. You know, it was just great. It was a great night.
NNAMDI1968 was a "Soul Man" kind of year also. But this film, as we said, is set in that year, 1968. What was significant about that year?
BLAIRWell, look, it was the year that aboriginal people got the right to vote and were counted as Australian citizens. It was the year that Dr. King was assassinated, you know? There's a big thing called the Tet Offensive that happened in Vietnam. That was the year. And, you know, the list goes on. But, you know, just to have those three major things happen in a space of 90 minutes in our film is sort of -- that's a great start.
NNAMDIDr. King's death particularly significant in Australia for aboriginals?
BLAIRFor sure. It was a big thing. You know, it just -- you know, to have someone like that because you have to remember the aboriginal sort of civil rights movement, for want of a better term, was the blueprint of that was the American civil rights movement. And people like Dr. King who were at forefront of that. So, yes, when he did pass away, that made big news. And the sadness that you guys felt over here, we definitely felt back in Australia.
NNAMDIYou're an indigenous Australian yourself. How has that shaped your work?
BLAIRLook, I mean, you know, being aboriginal in Australia from day dot you become political. You just have to be. So you just -- the way you grow up and I suppose you have your family around you and your community and you just have to sort of keep strong in that way, first and foremost. But it's up to the individual to sort of, you know, do their own research to try to, you know, to make amends of this, the world we live in.
BLAIRAnd to, you know, the Australians sort of has a -- we have the harsh history in my own country, but we're coming to terms with it now. And so being an aboriginal person myself, just got to do your thing, you know? And I've got art. You know, and as I say, once you got art, you get a voice. Once you get a voice, you got freedom. And once you have freedom, you got to be responsible for your own freedom. And that's what I'm trying to do.
NNAMDIArt, voice, freedom and responsible all come together in the film, "The Sapphires." It opens here in the U.S. on March 22nd. The four young women in this film travel to Vietnam to tour U.S. military bases and entertain U.S. troops. Let's listen to a clip from their first gig, the waterman clip.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1Now we got real-life aborigines from Australia and they're going to be putting it down out there for you tonight. So I want you to be polite. Grab a drink off my beautiful ladies because we got a big line-up for you all tonight. And remember, you're at the K Baby, the best black bar in Saigon. Yeah.
MR. CHRIS O'DOWDLet's do it. Yeah?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1Yeah. You're on.
NNAMDIYou actually filmed this in Vietnam and you had to recreate American military bases there. What was that like? Are there still sensitivities about the war?
BLAIRTo a certain extent, yeah. But, you know, for the most part, we just found, every part -- I find the Vietnamese people so generous, so wonderfully generous, you know. And to recreate those American bases with choppers and with trucks, you know, these days, you just have to find a company that owns those type of things and just hire off them. But for, you know, the Vietnamese people were so generous.
BLAIRAnd, you know, of course, Australia were great allies of America back in that war. So, you know, they are, you know, I don't know. They are. They just -- Vietnamese people are really great with us.
NNAMDIWayne Blair, he directed the film, "The Sapphires" opening in the U.S. on March 22nd. I know you had a lot of fun choosing the music. We're going to go out with the scene that ends the film. The Sapphires singing "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." Wayne Blair, thank you very much for joining us and good luck to you.
BLAIRThank you, Kojo, for your time.
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