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Sparkling ‘Sapphires’ reveals how to shine

“The Sapphires” (2012 production, 2013 release). Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell, Tory Kittles, Eka Darville, Cleave Williams, Lynette Narkle, Kylie Belling, Gregory J. Fryer, Don Battee, Hunter Page-Lochard, Meyne Wyatt, T.J. Power. Director: Wayne Blair. Screenplay: Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs. Play: The Sapphires, by Tony Briggs. Web site. Trailer.

Stepping into the spotlight is something many of us have likely fantasized about at one time or another, but how many of us actually follow through on that dream? Some of us end up shooting ourselves in the foot. Others among us lack the courage or conviction to carry through. And others still simply don’t know how to make things happen. But there are steps we can take to achieve success, many of which are outlined in the delightful new comedy-drama, “The Sapphires,” a story inspired by actual events.

The Australian Outback may not seem like the birthplace of a pop singing sensation, but don’t tell that to a talented quartet from the Aboriginal community of Cummeragunja. At one time, the long odds of anyone from Australia’s native population making it big in the face of the country’s oppressive, but legally sanctioned, segregation policies might have easily deterred those who dared dream of a better life. But even those challenging circumstances were no match for the determination of the Cummeragunja Songbirds.

In 1958, three young sisters (Gail, Julie and Cynthia) and a cousin (Kay) formed an impromptu singing group, mainly to perform at family functions. However, no sooner did the aspiring artists get their start when Kay, a light-skinned biracial Aborigine, was forcibly seized (and subsequently relocated) by government authorities to acculturate her into the conventions of “white ways.” Like other natives of fair complexion, Kay was thus coerced into abandoning her way of life, her family and her fellow musicians. The Songbirds’ prospects suddenly looked bleak.

Fast forward 10 years to 1968, where the film’s main story picks up with the older, wiser and more musically polished sisters seeking to launch their singing careers. They’re encouraged by the recent passage of new laws granting civil rights to Australia’s black citizens, hopeful that conditions might at last be changing enough to make their dreams possible. But, despite the legal abolition of discrimination, prejudicial attitudes linger, as the girls find out firsthand when they put their skills on the line in a local talent contest.

And that’s just the beginning of their challenges. In addition to their tepid reception at the contest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) each have personal and family matters that they’re grappling with, as well as performance-related rivalry issues that sometimes get quite contentious. Then there’s their ill-conceived choice of country music as singing material (even the most broad-minded audience members can’t help but snicker at an Aborigine threesome crooning a Merle Haggard tune, no matter how beautiful the rendition). And, of course, as gifted as the trio is, it’s just not the same without their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), who now lives “the white life” in Melbourne.

Fortunately, an unlikely savior comes to the Songbirds’ rescue in the guise of Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), a boozy, struggling Irish musician who emcees the talent contest – and who promptly gets blown away by their singing. After the competition, Dave chats with the girls, who show him a newspaper clipping about auditions seeking musicians to perform for American GIs serving in Vietnam. They admit to knowing nothing about that faraway land or the war that’s raging there, but they also know an opportunity when they see it. And, even though Dave is aware of the conflict and what that could entail for a successful concert tour, he nevertheless sees this unconventional gig as a chance to strike it big. So the would-be impresario agrees to take on this high-stakes challenge on one condition – that the Songbirds forego their country tunes in favor of soul music, a genre he loves and one that he knows the troops will dig.

Before long, Dave and the Songbirds are off to Melbourne for their audition. Once there, the sisters are reunited with Kay, who agrees to rejoin the group. The girls also undergo their dramatic transformation from country crooners to soul sisters, a change that proceeds surprisingly easily. And, shortly thereafter, Dave and the renamed quartet – now known as the Sapphires – are winging their way to Saigon and their concert tour of Vietnam, a journey filled with diverse experiences that enable them to grow both as performers and as individuals. Their odyssey infuses change in their lives in many ways, including their music, their love lives, their relationships with one another and, most importantly, how they see themselves. It’s truly a time for the Sapphires to sparkle.

Getting to the top often means getting out of one’s own way, something that both Dave and the Sapphires must do if they hope to attain success. And, fortunately for them, they’re sharp enough to realize this as they climb the ladder of accomplishment. They’re thus able to scale the heights of personal growth and development, attainments that allow them to be all that they can, enabling them to live up to their potential and to fulfill their individual destinies. And, in doing so, the protagonists employ a number of key conscious creation principles in materializing the new realities they each experience:

* The point of power is in the present moment. The only time over which any of us has any power to directly control what transpires in our existence is the present. Therefore, if we hope to make the most of our manifestation efforts, we must strive to be conscious of this concept, as well as the particulars of what is actually unfolding around us at the time, for it is only in that moment that we can prompt meaningful, desired outcomes. For instance, when the girls meet Dave and pitch him on their idea, they’re clearly aware of the elements that are coming together to make their future possible, and they don’t hesitate to pounce upon the synchronicity playing out before them. It subsequently propels them to results that more than exceed their expectations.

Letting go of the past and refraining from unduly pinning our hopes on the future are crucial to remaining present. Failing on either of these points can hold us back, leading to frustration and futility. Gail, for example, discovers this for herself in a number of ways, particularly in her dealings with Kay, a love-hate relationship based on past events that keeps Gail from moving forward, not only in her connection with her cousin but also in her own understanding of herself. Only when Gail gets past these self-imposed hurdles can she begin to see significant improvements in her relationship with Kay – and with herself.

* To thine own self be true. As self-evident as this might seem, we often lose sight of it, drifting away from our “true” selves in an attempt to become people we’re not. Making proper use of this concept requires us to draw upon our inner sense of knowing and to realistically assess the beliefs we employ in creating the reality around us. Julie, for instance, knows that she’s the linchpin to the Songbirds’ success, and she fights for her place in the group, even when others, like her mother (Kylie Belling), try to hold her back. Her resolute insistence on assuming her rightful role within the group garners her the attention and support she needs to make that outcome happen and to help the group fulfill the destiny it was meant to attain.

Similarly, Gail needs to come to terms with her role as the group’s “mama bear.” As the eldest member of the ensemble, she’s “the responsible one,” always looking after her younger relatives, a calling she takes seriously and succeeds at, even if it’s not the most glamorous role. However, as the eldest, she also believes she’s entitled to the limelight, an aspiration that can be difficult to fulfill when one’s always busy looking after others. Indeed, reconciling ourselves to our destined roles can be difficult, especially when belief conflicts become wrapped up in the equation, but the sooner we recognize the part we’re meant to play and follow through on it accordingly, the quicker we’ll shine at living out who we are ordained to be. Ironically, on some level, Gail realizes this, too, as seen in her impassioned efforts to encourage Kay to acknowledge her innate black ancestry rather than continuing to embrace the faux white “heritage” that was involuntarily thrust upon her. One can only hope that Kay follows her elder cousin’s advice – and that Gail recognizes the wisdom of her own teachings for herself.

The merits of being true to oneself become apparent when one looks at the biographies of the women who provided the inspiration for the characters in this film (presented just prior to the closing credits). Sisters Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler and cousins Beverley Briggs and Naomi Meyers courageously followed through on their aspirations, becoming the performers – and the people – they knew they could be. And the example they set, in turn, inspired Beverley’s playwright/screenwriter son Tony, who went on to tell their story through the play he wrote about them and the script he co-wrote for this picture. So, if anyone doubts the value of living genuinely, one need only look to the experiences of these artists to see the validity of this concept.

* Don’t be afraid to evolve. As we grow and develop as individuals, either personally or professionally, we’re almost certain to evolve as our true selves and true talents emerge from the formless world of our inner being into the outer materialized world of our daily existence. Leaving ourselves open to change, being willing (as necessary) to rewrite the beliefs that manifest the reality we experience, recognizing the synchronicities that contribute to the unfolding of our existence as they occur and moving forward without fear all combine to bring about that essential evolution, allowing us to blossom in ways we might have never thought possible.

Upon hearing the Songbirds croon their country tunes, it’s difficult to knock them for their talent, especially since this music seems to make up a big part of who they are as artists. But, considering who they want to become, it’s obvious they need to leave it behind in the Outback. For many of us, abandoning something that’s such an intrinsic aspect of our being might be difficult, but the girls don’t hesitate to make much-needed changes, because they know what’s at stake. They’re amenable to letting the Songbirds morph into the Sapphires, willingly trading their soft serenades of tearful country melodies for belting out soul numbers like nobody’s business. And, because they don’t resist making these essential changes, their rise to success comes that much more easily, an example we’d all be wise to emulate.

* See the “roadblocks” for what they are. Whenever we encounter difficulties along the path to success, we may be tempted to abandon our plans, seeing them as inevitable impossibilities. But this approach overlooks the true intent of what underlies roadblocks. In most cases, they’re designed to help galvanize us in our resolve, making us more determined to see our plans through. In other instances, they’re intended to help us make adjustments in our trajectories, prompting course corrections to get us on a more suitable path. Thus, if we view these “setbacks” in this light, we’re much more likely to roll with the punches (and a lot less likely to throw in the towel).

The protagonists in this story all encounter their share of roadblocks, but they generally don’t let them get in the way of their progress. As a single mother, for example, Julie is initially discouraged to pursue her music, but her passion for singing is so great that she won’t permit those who would block her from having their way. And then there are the many dangers of going on a concert tour in a war zone, but Dave and the girls refuse to let those potential obstacles derail their efforts. Solutions always seem to arise when needed, enabling them to keep making music – and enjoying the journey along the way.

* Relish the joy and power of creation. This should go without saying, but all too often we don’t allow ourselves to experience this simple – yet quite natural – principle. We frequently deny ourselves such enjoyment either through acts of self-sabotage or a fundamental disbelief in the possibility itself. However, if conscious creation makes all options possible, then this one is just as viable as all of those others that, regrettably, we’re all too eager to embrace.

Again, the Sapphires are well aware of the joy and power associated with acts of creation (especially those that spring forth from their own hand), and they unhesitatingly immerse themselves in such undertakings with passion and commitment. They clearly have fun doing what they’re doing, getting the most out of every minute of bringing joy into the lives of those who have precious little of it. That’s the way life should be, though many of us have unfortunately lost sight of it; maybe watching this film can help some of us restore that feeling.

If it’s not already apparent, “The Sapphires” is a real charmer of a film, a genuine feel-good picture deserving of the label. The superbly written screenplay develops its characters well and leaves no story threads unresolved, accomplishments sorely lacking in many scripts these days. It’s also a great period piece with authentic reproductions of ʼ60s hairstyles and outfits, right down to the signature white patent leather go-go boots. But, above all, it’s the music that makes the film; its soundtrack includes many soul and Motown standards like “I’ll Take You There,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “What a Man” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” performed faithfully but with just enough restrained kitsch to bring a wry, nostalgic smile to one’s eye. Admittedly, the pacing could be a little livelier in the first 30 minutes, but that minor drawback doesn’t detract significantly from the picture’s overall quality.

“The Sapphires” is currently playing in limited release, though I’m hoping that this picture finds an audience for itself through word of mouth, much the way other sleeper hits like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002) and “The Full Monty” (1997) did in years past. This one is worth seeing, not only for the inspiration it evokes but also for the sheer entertainment it provides. It’s indeed a pleasure to see a picture that delivers on both fronts in the same fun-loving package.

Director Wayne Blair has made an impressive debut in his first feature film, and I’m anxious to see what he comes up with next. This picture provides a clear roadmap of many of the principles needed for successfully creating a reality to one’s liking. And, after all, isn’t that what life is all about? Creating an existence that’s meant to be enjoyed, rather than just endured, should be the aim of our conscious creation efforts. The Sapphires clearly know how to do this, and we should follow their lead. And, by doing so, we all just might be able to shine.

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti, courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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