11:53 AM EDT, March 28, 2013
"The Sapphires," which opens Friday, is the crowd-pleasing, based-on-actual-people story of four young Aboriginal women who team up with a male Irish manager and perform for American troops in Vietnam, so it's covering its bases internationally.
The movie received a reported 10-minute standing ovation in its out-of-competition debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has played France, England and its native Australia, but for first-time director Wayne Blair and singer-star Jessica Mauboy — as well as the Weinstein Co., which bought most of the film's international rights at Cannes — the U.S. represents both a launch pad and spiritual homecoming.
A successful U.S. run would give "The Sapphires" a boost elsewhere and in subsequent formats, but the movie's particular resonance here stems from it being rooted in late '60s American soul music and an Australian civil rights movement that has more than a few parallels here.
"I think that people are a little bit more aware here than anywhere else (of the Aboriginal civil rights struggles)," Mauboy, 23, said over a lunch of Slurping Turtle bento boxes with Blair this month. She was sleekly glamorous in a wavy-patterned sleeveless dress, while he sported a scruffier corduroy-jacket-over-sweatshirt look.
If you want to get reductive with "The Sapphires," it's an Aboriginal "Dreamgirls" (women form singing group during racially divided '60s) or "The Commitments" (non-American English speakers get popular covering soul songs). Based on a 2005 stage show written by Tony Briggs, the real-life son of the character played by Mauboy (Julie), the movie takes place in 1968, when Australian discrimination against Aboriginals runs high, but the times they are, you know …
"The background of this story was relatable to my family and the stories that I had heard," said Mauboy, who grew up in Australia's Northern Territory and was a runner-up on the 2006 season of "Australian Idol." "I felt that I really wanted to be a part of telling that story and that part of the history of Australia."
Blair, 41, is an indigenous Australian who grew up in a small country town in central Queensland. He played the boyfriend of one of the singers in the stage show and had directed theater and short films, including one that won a Berlin Film Festival award, when Briggs asked him "as a friend" to direct the "Sapphires" movie, Blair said. He gave it a shot.
The project changed from the stage to the screen. Depicting the Vietnam War in a theater takes less effort than showing it in a movie, so "The Sapphires" was shot in Saigon as well as Australia.
Also, the women's manager in the stage show was Australian, but in the movie he's an Irishman played by Chris O'Dowd, who played the Kristen Wiig character's boyfriend in "Bridesmaids." The character meets a different fate in the movie and play, and actually, Blair said, there was no such character in real life.
"That's where we went a bit 'Argo,'" he said.
At any rate, Keith Thompson, the movie's British co-writer, had written the manager as an Englishman, Blair said, but after two English actors passed on the role, Blair saw "Bridesmaids" and said he told the producers, "We've got to get this guy."
With his booze-soaked, no-nonsense charm, O'Dowd just about walks away with the movie, though he's got some competition once Mauboy opens her mouth. She's got some soul power, even though in real life she's more of a pop singer, having recorded two albums, the second featuring guest vocals from Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion) and Ludacris.
Neither she nor Blair was that up on vintage American soul before making the movie. Like the Sapphires themselves, they started out more into vintage American country and western.
"It was big in the Aboriginal communities," Blair said.
"And still," Mauboy added with a laugh.
"Merle Haggard, George Strait," Blair said.
"We had a bit of a mixture," Mauboy said.
"Patsy (Cline)?" Blair asked.
"Tammy Wynette, yeah," Mauboy said. "Loved, loved Charley Pride."
But also like the real-life Sapphires, they developed a love for the music coming out of Detroit and Memphis, Tenn., in the late '60s. The women, with Mauboy in the lead, tackle such classics as Linda Lyndell's "What a Man," the upbeat Gladys Knight arrangement of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and a few songs added for the movie, including the Staple Singers' anachronistic "I'll Take You There" from 1972.
Blair said Mauboy did all of her singing, while the other three lead actresses — Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell — sang some parts and not others.
"Every time they sang a cappella, it was all the girls' voices," Blair said. "When the songs were harder, the harmonies we got somewhere else."
Mauboy, who co-starred in the Australian musical "Bran Nue Dae" (2009), said she was able to get acting tips from her fellow Sapphires, and "vice versa I would teach (them) some scales and getting ready for the performance and vocally not straining yourself."
Both Mauboy and Blair live in Australia but are looking into projects in the U.S.: The singer working on her third album with some Los Angeles producers; the director pitching his next films. But Blair said he also has appreciated working in Australia and has a potential project based there as well.
"In our country there's government support for indigenous filmmakers," he said. "We get more support and encouragement to make our own stories."
Blair and Mauboy expressed gratitude that "The Sapphires" has enabled them to see so much of the world, including Chicago for the first time.
"We're just loving everything about your city," Blair said. "I want to go see 'The Bean.'"
As for how the finished movie matches up to his initial expectations, Blair said that after talking about it for the past nine months, he no longer can remember.
"I knew we wanted Australia to see it," he said. "I knew we wanted a film (that) you walked out the cinema going, 'Heck, it's great to be alive.' And I knew we wanted the world to see it. I knew we wanted to get it to America, and now we're here."
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