MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Down Under On Their Way Up With THE SAPPHIRES’ Blair And Mauboy

There are more reasons than better weather to cheer the arrival of spring; gone are the dog days of January and February, when multiplexes were still showing either awards season titles or disposable new features studios were dumping for a quick theatrical run before video release. Finally some decent movies are on screen, and one of the most enjoyable right now is a musical drama-comedy from Australia, The Sapphires. A little movie with a big heart and a great vibe, it’s the story of three Aboriginal sisters—Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy)—who dream of becoming country and western singers in 1968 Victoria. Luckily for them they meet Dave, a down-at-heels music promoter (Chris O’Dowd) who sells them on soul instead. Tired of fighting racism at home, the sisters enlist their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) to make their trio a quartet, and with Dave as their manager head to Vietnam for a gig singing to American troops. Based on a stage musical by Tony Briggs (who was inspired by his own family’s history), the movie has a period look that’s spot-on, and a soundtrack full of Sixties hits that have stood the test of time. The Weinstein Company recently flew director Wayne Blair and star Mauboy to the States for a series of interviews; I caught up with them at (appropriately) The House of Blues.

Andrea Gronvall:  Not having seen the original stage production, I’m wondering how—beyond, obviously, your use of locations—did you open up the play for the big screen?

Wayne Blair:  We changed half the songs because we had more to play with. We also fleshed out the characters to a greater extent; in the movie we start with the four female protagonists as youngsters, which wasn’t the case in the play. And the character of Dave [Chris O’Dowd] is Irish in the film, but he was Australian on the stage.

AG:  You were under a lot of pressure with a tight budget and a rigorous shooting schedule. One of your producers, Kylie de Fresne, said Ho Chi Minh City was “a pretty crazy place to make a film.” How did you handle the stress?

WB:  During the shoot, I didn’t have time to think, I just had to keep moving. And then in the evenings I screened dailies. But apart from the night right before shooting began, when I didn’t sleep well, I was so tired at the end of every day that I slept like a baby. We covered nine locations in six weeks. For me, the challenges in shooting in Vietnam were not about culture clashes, or even language—a lot of the Vietnamese people speak at least a little English, but when language is a barrier, you can usually make your intentions clear through gestures. For me, the difficulty mostly was the distances we had to travel: two and a half hours from the city into the country to shoot the group performing for the troops at remote sites.

AG:  There’s a sequence in The Sapphires that is key to the appeal of the movie, and gets right to the heart of what soul is all about. It’s when Dave coaches the girls, “Country and western music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is, in country and western music they’ve lost, they’ve given up, and they’re just at home whining about it. In soul music they’re struggling to get it back, and they haven’t given up—”

WB:  “—so every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s gasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.” I wrote that, together with Tony Briggs.

AG:  I love those lines. They set the tone, and they set up our expectations—which the characters meet. Jessica, I didn’t see your appearances on “Australian Idol,” so I don’t know what material you performed. I will say that I find the trend of the kind of “power ballads” that “American Idol” and “The Voice” and “Smash” promote is getting tedious. What’s refreshing about your numbers in The Sapphires is that you respect those great songs from the Sixties; you don’t try to upstage them. You serve the songs, and so the songs serve you, and in the process you become incandescent. You really get it.

Jessica Mauboy:  Thank you! When it came time to audition for “Aussie Idol” at first I didn’t want to do it. But I was really lucky that I had supportive parents and enough confidence to go ahead. I was 16 at the time. “Idol” has a process: you have to choose from the list of songs the show gives you to perform. I only made it to runner-up, but that opened doors to a record contract; I’m currently working on my third studio album.

I feel the same as you about the music in The Sapphires. On those songs I worked with Wayne and with Bryan Jones, who’s the top soul producer in Australia. I also got the chance to meet the real-life women who inspired the play and the movie–sophisticated and really strong women, who took the time to talk with us about their lives. By the time filming started, I had a sense of who my character was, and could tell her story through the songs.

AG:  One thing I noticed in the movie is that the competitiveness and the combativeness between the three sisters spill over into their dealings with the outside world. They don’t take any guff from anyone, including men. Were these women ahead of their time, or is their brash toughness a part of Aboriginal culture?

JM:  A certain amount of intensity and aggressiveness I’d say are part of Aboriginal culture.

WB:  You know where you stand right away, rather than pussyfoot around each other.

AG:  So what’s next for you two? When are we going to see you on the screen again, Jessica?

JM:  If the opportunity comes up, I’d like to do a film again. I’ll be traveling back and forth to New York and L.A. for the next couple of years, to work with music producers Harvey Mason, Jr. and Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. I’ll be spending the whole of April in L.A.

WB:  I’ll be working on “Redfern Now,” a TV series for ITA/ABC.

AG:  Have you been getting any film offers?

WB:  I’m reviewing a number of movie projects, yes.

AG:  Anything exciting?

WB:  It’s all exciting now.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin