One of the most talked-about moments at last year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) was closing film The Sapphires, the true-life tale of a group of related indigenous Australian women who grew up amongst the widespread racism that existed in the 1950s and ’60s. A pivitoal referendum of 1967 for the first time counted Aboriginals amongst the ‘reckoning population’ that determined census counts.
Despite possessing some fearsome vocals, prejudice meant they would never be accepted as musicians on home soil, but in 1968 they landed a gig touring Vietnam to perform soul hits for the US Army.
Co-written by Tony Briggs – the son of one of the original Sapphires, Laurel Robinson – the film adaptation of their story combines high ideals and a moral sensibility with an entertaining, comedic road movie – and killer tunes. If it sounds a little earnest or twee to you, know that even the critics went for this one, with a 93 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of going to press.
At the backbone of the film is the sultry, soulful singing voice of Jessica Mauboy, shimmering through the workbook of Motown classics the group performed nightly to hungry GIs. A former Australian Idol winner, Mauboy is a huge pop name Down Under, with three hit albums and collaborations with American names such as Flo Rida, Ludacris, Jay Sean and even Snoop Dogg. But despite her musical success, with limited acting experience 23-year-old Mauboy fought for the role over a period of months because it was a story she believed in, coming from mixed Indonesian and Aboriginal heritage herself. It’s worth noting her only other screen credit was another Aboriginal musical road movie, 2010’s Bran Nue Dae.
We sat down with a surprisingly untamed Mauboy, who spoke at length about both the personal and professional challenges the film presented her, as well as the challenges Australia still faces today.
The Sapphires has received some phenomenal reviews. Are you surprised how well it has done?
We knew it was going to be a really special moment for Australia culturally – and musically too. Within our community we’ve seen a massive impact, a massive feeling [in] Australia with the film. It’s opened the conversation we never had at the beginning, in terms of the relationship of Aboriginal people living in Australia. It’s something that’s always been brushed under. [Within] the new Australia, the relationship and the connection has been... more of a violent kind of connection, it’s always been like that.
With the film it’s really allowed everyone to open up and have a say.
Have you personally noticed a change in attitude since the film was released?
Oh yeah, hugely. It’s weird, the people that have walked past me and in the past not said anything have now said something. And that’s really cool and awesome, that’s just massive.
As a pop star, the movie was quite a departure for you.
Definitely. Music has [always] been number one, I’ve done music videos, which are very different, the language is very different and the environment is very different. I had to swim really fast, working with [actors] Chris O’Dowd and Deborah Mailman, who I’ve always looked up to as an indigenous Australian, I had to really be on their level. So I was learning from them, while they were learning about singing from me.
So as the singing star, was the cast selected to go around you?
No! I was pretty much the last one to be picked. It was quite a difficult process for me, it was really hard, ‘so do I have the role or not?’ Everyone was really discreet, under the radar, and I felt emotionally drained. I felt ‘do I actually want to do this now?’ But I fell so in love with the story. I fell in love with the fact it was going to be a switch up from everything that has been released in Australia, something different that would definitely connect.
Did the cast ever get to meet the real Sapphires your characters are inspired by?
Yeah we did, when we found out we were playing our characters we had a cool thing with the original Sapphires, a meet and greet. The story was that they never wanted to go on and pursue music, they wanted to pursue their community. They knew that was in trouble and they knew that with their knowledge and the travel they had done and what they had seen, they could take their stories back to tell within their communities, for the next generation, and support and be strong for their people. That was huge. They’ve really paved the pathway for indigenous, Aboriginal women. Aboriginal women were always considered stay at home mums, who never did anything, never had a career. And now our generation are watching this film now saying ‘I didn’t know [they did] that, now I know, maybe I could do that too.’
Race relations have come on a huge way since then, but do you think there’s still discrimination in Australia?
I think there is. I know that there is. You don’t physically, but, it creeps up on you, you know that it’s around. You can feel it, but you avoid that.
There are still moments where it’s not entirely comfortable?
Yeah, of course there is.
Is this something that affects you personally?
I’ve seen it with other people. I know within my role which I play now – I’m in pop culture, pop music – which has made it really easy for me, as a face, to get into places.
Do you feel like an ambassador for Aboriginal women yourself?
I do, and I’m proud of that. I’ve always felt that I’ve been a leader within my Darwin community. And I still go back to the community and I do music workshops and I go out there and speak their language. I go out and sit with them and converse.
Do you speak any indigenous language?
Musically. Language, no. It’s sad because my family come from a stolen generation, so we never got to grow up with our language. We still are communicating, but we would have loved to have learned our language from the beginning.
Do you feel a lot of pressure as a high-profile celebrity of Aboriginal descent? That a misstep could bring disrespect to the community?
Totally. I think having grown up with the Aboriginal community since I was young, I knew that already. I wouldn’t cross any boundaries like that, it’s always been in my family, culturally – we respect elders, we give we don’t receive and that’s rewarding.
Tell us what the real Sapphires are really like.
They’re very classy women. What you see in the photos, the way they dress, the way they present themselves – very classy, very straightforward. And still to this day they are representing that. [The first meeting] was quite scary. The director Wayne Blair introduced us to them and they were just very straight, not very giving [laughs].
So they weren’t that impressed with the whole thing?
They were impressed, but they’re not very affectionate women, so they were very proud, but wouldn’t show it. They were women who when it was time, they would let you know. But throughout the whole launch of the film, at the Melbourne International Film Festival, you could just hear them going, ‘ah I remember that’ throughout the film, it was so funny. They were bickering, laughing and giggling and being the young women at that time.
Were they happy with the finished product?
They were, they very proud. We were very nervous. I didn’t want to make the wrong move, I wanted to impress them, and play that character as one of us. It worked out very well, we had our first screening before we took it to the Cannes Film Festival and we just all sat there just crying with each other, saying how proud we were of each other and we knew it was going to big for Australia. From the beginning, when we brought it back [from Cannes] it was life changing for everyone. For all the elders who went through that time, that period and for the next generation to come along.
And it was pretty big for your music career too?
Yeah, it sold my music anyway. Musically it’s really taken me to be able to sing in many, many different places. I’ve been touring with the film and doing pop-up performances before and after we screened the film, and that’s been really amazing.
Oddly, the song you wrote for the film was your first single not to make the Australian Top 40.
Yeah, I wrote a song called Gotcha for the film, as a theme song, and it made the credits. Erm, it was crazy because I’d come out off the back of the film straight into the studio with some really great friends and it just poured out really from there.
Now you’ve made it in the movies, are there any other historical characters you’d like to play onscreen?
I’ve never really thought about that – I’ve always wanted to be in a thriller movie. I’m a big fan of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, those kind of films, I’d love to give that a go. Although I don’t know if I could do that kind of high-pitched scream.
The Sapphires is out on Thursday July 4.