For her second film Jessica Mauboy admits she had to swim hard, but with Hollywood calling, the singer turned actress is glad she took the plunge, writes Neala Johnson
Jess Mauboy’s time to shine
SITTING in the hair and make- up chair on the set of her new music video Gotcha, Jessica Mauboy found herself gripped by ’ 60s fever. ‘‘ More!’’ she shouted. ‘‘ Tease it more! Higher, higher! Volume!’’ ‘‘ It was funny,’’ she says, looking back. ‘‘ I’ve never been a big fan of the whole beehive and teasing of the hair, the boof, the eyeliner, the flick . . . But being on the film and experiencing the style, it really educated me. I fell in love with it.’’
The film to which Mauboy refers is The Sapphires , the story of an Aboriginal singing group sent to entertain troops during the Vietnam War.
Before it’s even been released, the movie has gained incredible buzz premiering at Cannes and being picked up for US distribution by Oscar- magnets The Weinstein Company.
The Sapphires is only Mauboy’s second film role but already she’s shown a golden touch.
Her first movie, the musical Bran Nue Dae, was the second- biggest Australian- made film of 2010, pulling in $ 7.7 million.
In The Sapphires, Mauboy plays ‘‘ a child with a child’’, the most talented of her clan of singing sisters, determined to make something of herself and support her baby boy.
Mauboy knows exactly how she’s come to be where she is, musically from her season as an Australian Idol contestant to her nine Top 20 singles.
But the movie success she doesn’t understand, beyond it being a stroke of luck that two of the most populist Aussie movie projects in recent years required indigenous performers who could sing.
‘‘ My motto is whatever happens will happen, and that’s the way it’s gonna be,’’ she says.
‘‘ I got the call around two years ago for The Sapphires. I had a meeting with Wayne [ Blair, director] and he said, ‘ We think you could do this part, would you like to audition?’.
‘‘ It wasn’t a turn- down, it was more just things were happening at the time . . . we said we’d come back to it.
‘‘ Then that year a lot of things happened and I said, ‘ I hardly know my own culture. This is part of my life, I need to be educated on this era’. It was great for me to get in there culturally and understand. I needed it. I really needed it.’’
Set in 1968, The Sapphires touches on issues from lighter- skinned Aboriginal children being taken from their parents to the impact of the death of Martin Luther King.
But the music is the core of the film and that too, was an education.
One song, Ngarra Burra Ferra, marks Darwin- born Mauboy’s first time singing in an Aboriginal language.
‘‘ I’d sung a bit of Torres Strait Islander music, but never had I learnt an Aboriginal song. This particular song was quite haunting,’’ she says. ‘‘ When we were in the studio I got quite choked up, I couldn’t sing. All those little things my mum’s generation really never got to know . . . part of doing this film was to know more about my clan. We’re really now just finding the family tree.’’ But mostly, it was about soul music. The Sapphires soundtrack, featuring Mauboy on lead vocals, is a powerhouse of soul classics: Land of a Thousand Dances, I Heard it Through the Grapevine, What a Man, I Can’t Help Myself, Who’s Loving You?, I’ll Take You There.
As Chris O’Dowd ( playing the group’s manager) says in the film, this music should be sung with ‘‘ the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her’’.
Mauboy didn’t have to dig too deep to find that fight.
‘‘ Growing up, that’s the music I really related to. A lot of my friends were listening to pop music, but I grew up fast in the community. I saw a lot of domestic violence.
‘‘ So that’s where I connected with real lyrics, lyrics that hit my soul and my heart, that made me feel happy again.’’
It was also about digging deeply into her character, Julie.
‘‘ I wanted Julie to be quite courageous and a risk taker. That was the most powerful thing, for Julie, to communicate in song.
‘‘ I doubted it at first, doing the soundtrack. Listening to the Aretha Franklin track, then listening to my track . . .
‘‘ But with the script in my head, I felt the connection; knowing the story, now I can sing this music. I listen to it now and I can’t believe I sound like that. It really has changed me vocally. Educated me. Feel it, not just follow it.’’
Mauboy poured that feeling into her original contribution to soundtrack, Gotcha.
Written with IIan Kidron of Potbelleez and next- big- pop- writer Louis Schrool, it melds the ’ 60s vibe with a modern, cut- up pace.
‘‘ I wanted something really feisty but sexy,’’ Mauboy says. ‘‘ It’s one of my all time favourites I’ve ever written.’’
She adds it’s just a ‘‘ moment’’ they wanted to capture; she doesn’t believe her third album, which she’s working on now, ‘‘ will veer too much’’ from the R& B/ pop with which she’s made her name.
But she’s braver than she used to be, willing to give anything a go.