"The Sapphires" is missing a lot — detailed characters, a unique narrative arc, half-plausible scenes of the Vietnam War — but it's got two uncommon things going for it: genuine charm and Chris O'Dowd. They are not mutually exclusive.
O'Dowd, the Irish comedic actor, has no proper business being in "The Sapphires," a film about four Aboriginal sisters in rural '60s Australia who set out to make it as a pop singing group. But this is the same actor who managed to play a Milwaukee police officer with his natural brogue in "Bridesmaids." His passport, thankfully, has some peculiar powers.
In "The Sapphires," he plays a heavy-drinking former cruise ship entertainer named Dave who has somehow wound up in an Australian backwater hosting a rinky-dink local talent show. The film first greets him passed out in the back of his car. When he wakes, he goes for his sunglasses and a pint before his pants. "Soul Man" is playing, the joke being that this pale and lanky boozer is not exactly a shining star of Motown.
But, he insists, the music is in his veins: "My blood runs Negro," he says, a joke to everyone but him. And when he sees three sisters — Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) — perform a Merl Saunders tune, he's immediately blown away. He tells them to ditch the country music for soul and soon they (along with an estranged fourth sister, Kay, played by Shari Sebbens) are off to entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam as a Supremes-esque foursome, with Dave as manager.
Like Bill Murray did in the '70s, O'Dowd enlivens the otherwise thin but buoyant film with his winning charisma. He's the off-color, off-key salvation to this bright and simple Australian period musical.
It's an odd hodgepodge of a movie. Cutting between scenes of the Civil Rights movement in America with the plight of indigenous Australians, the opening credits connect the social changes of Down Under in the late '60s and early '70s with those from the opposite side of the globe. There's a similar air of racism, heard in catcalls from white Australians, along with the heavy recent history of discrimination.
"The Sapphires" was adapted with the help of co-screenwriter Keith Thompson from Tony Brigg's 2004 stage play. It opens with a summary of the late arrival of rights for Aboriginal Australians and of the "Stolen Generations" of indigenous families whose children — like Kay in the film — were abducted by the government. While "The Sapphires" is far from a history lesson, it's a rare film to portray such a history, one generally unfamiliar to Westerners. Briggs wrote the story loosely based on his mother's traveling girl group.
The directorial debut of the Aussie actor Wayne Blair, the film is most concerned with the sisterhood of its singers. They're painted broadly but entertainingly: Gail, played forcefully and memorably by Mailman, is the proud eldest; Cynthia is the eager carouser; Julie has the soaring lead voice; and Julie is awakening to her ethnicity. They constantly vacillate between bickering and singing.
When the film moves to Vietnam, its less expert filmmaking and threadbare, inauthentic settings get harder to forgive. Many of the scenes, as the girls travel stage to stage, lack any sense of a war-torn country. Vietnam is less a battlefield than a menagerie of handsome, strapping soldiers for the girls to enjoy.
Familiar soul hits make up the soundtrack, in song-and-dance scenes and montages. The songs are undeniable crowd-pleasing classics, but they've countless times before been fodder for movie redemption, muting their effect here somewhat.
But even when "The Sapphires" is at its most unpolished and cheesiest, O'Dowd and the film's general warm spirit make it a tune hard to resist. Heart and humor, after all, aren't always so easy to find at the movies.
"The Sapphires," a Weinstein Co. release, is rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking. Running time: 99 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.