Shot from the film 'The Sapphires' (2012)Instagram @apdguild

In May this year the Australian documentary, My Name is Gulpilil was released. The film celebrates the life of Indigenous Australian actor, David Gulpilil, who retired from acting in 2019 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. As well as telling the story of his incredible career — including Storm Boy (1976), Crocodile Dundee (1986), and Charlie’s Country (2014) — the film focuses on his life as an Indigenous Australian. This has re-opened a number of discussions around the representation of Indigenous Australians on-screen, sparking questions about how films might work to offer a mainstream platform for Indigenous voices to be heard by audiences globally, without appropriating Indigenous Australian culture.

Promotional poster for the Oscar nominated documentary 'My Name is Gulpilil" (2021)Instagram @mynameisgulpilil

One of the most famous examples of a film which exposes the problematic relationship between Indigenous Australian culture and global entertainment is the 2012 Australian musical comedy, The Sapphires. And while it has largely been seen as a positive representation of Indigenous Australians, a closer look at the soundtrack reveals the many issues in the way that the film represents the musical histories of Indigenous Australians.

“the dominance of the Motown soul genre is problematic and inappropriate from a postcolonial stance”

The Sapphires has had a significant presence in Australia ever since its release. It was the highest-earning Australian film on its opening weekend — grossing $2,320,000 from 275 cinemas. The plot is based on a true story about four Indigenous Australian women, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), three of whom move from their home in the outback to Melbourne in 1968, after being scouted at a local talent contest. Here, the group is transformed by Irish talent scout Dave Lovelace and they go from singing Aboriginal hymns and country music, to playing mainstream soul. The group then travels to Vietnam during the war to sing to American troops.

Promotional poster for 'The Sapphires' (2012)Twitter @The Sapphires Film

Seeing as how central music is to the film’s narrative, the dominance of the Motown soul genre is problematic and inappropriate from a postcolonial stance. Both because it is reductive in its portrayal of the original band and because of the way it misrepresents Australian musical history.

In an interview with ‘ABC Radio Canberra’, the original band-members discuss how the film represents only one moment in their history, when they were modelling themselves on the American ‘Supremes’ in order to suit the tastes of US troops on their tour of Vietnam. This snapshot of their career has been chosen partly because it provides a good storyline, but most importantly because of the popularity of the songs — allowing for its commercial success and side-lining the representation of Indigenous Australian culture.

There is no doubt that the positive reception the soundtrack has received is connected to the popularity of soul music. As four Aboriginal women sing Black American music throughout nearly all of the movie, they are synthesised more closely with audiences, giving the impression that these singers are rooted within Black American culture. The songs in the movie pander to a white audience who want to believe that Black American music was popular during the White Australian Policy Era. In reality, this music was far less popular in Australia. The Australian charts from the 1960s, when the film is set, demonstrate a clear lack of Motown soul, favouring the genre of rock or pop for the top hits of the years 1960-69.

The real 'Sapphires', from left to right: Beverly Briggs, Lois Peeler, Laurel Robinson, and Naomi Mayers.Twitter @aidrogo77

The film, in its focus on one moment in the history of ‘The Sapphires’, has effectively emphasised the genre of Motown soul and its American roots over the musical history of Australia. This is all the more misconstrued in the way that the genre is set up in the plot. In the film, ‘The Sapphires’ are developed by their white Irish manager, Dave Lovelace. The first song they perform under Dave’s instruction is a cover of ‘Who’s Loving You’. This song was originally written in 1960 by William “Smokey” Robinson (belonging to the genre of Motown soul). Dave is portrayed to have power and influence over the group’s musical performances, determining what they sing, and choosing soul over the country and western or traditional Indigenous music with which they were previously familiar. In one scene, Dave asks the group to sound “blacker”, really asking them to sound more “Black American”. Through Dave’s reshaping of the group’s original musical choices on screen, a white male is portrayed as constructing their identities as musicians.

In a small gesture towards the Indigenous roots of the characters on screen, the film begins and ends with a performance of the Aboriginal hymn, ‘Ngurra Burra Ferra’. However, as the only reference to Indigenous music, this musical “frame” merely serves to convince audiences of the film’s musical authenticity.

While The Sapphires has been somewhat successful in exploring a number of issues that Indigenous Australians have faced and still face today (i.e. the stolen generation and cultural assimilation), to non-Indigenous audiences, the music is ultimately unhelpful in that it does not reflect Indigeneity or even the music that the original Sapphires would have frequently performed.