“Ninety percent of all recorded music is shite,” opines Chris O’Dowd’s feckless band manager in Australian helmer Wayne Blair’s spirited debut feature, “The Sapphires.” “The other 10% is soul.” Soul music’s alleged redemptive powers are fully at work in this jumbled, sketchily written but vastly appealing true-life musical comedy. Closer to “The Commitments” than “Dreamgirls” with its broad Down Under humor, the colorful pic counts on sensational song-and-dance numbers and O’Dowd’s virtuoso comic turn to carry it through some bumpy key changes. Home-turf success is assured, while the Weinstein Co. has every reason to smell an international crowdpleaser.
Working with Keith Thompson, Aboriginal actor-writer Tony Briggs has retooled his 2004 stage play for the screen, in turn adapting his own family history: His mother, Laurel Robinson, was the lead singer of an all-Aboriginal female soul quartet that bucked racial prejudice to tour Vietnam in the late 1960s, entertaining troops. Their names and much else have been changed, but “The Sapphires” retains the story’s distinct cultural and ethnic context.
A pre-credits prologue offers a rough precis of the abuse and persecution endured by indigenous Australians through the 1960s and 1970s. Lest we fear things are going to get too didactic, however, an early exchange between sparring sister act Gail (Deborah Mailman) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) sets a more playful tone: “It’s because we’re black!” Gail moans when a bus cruises right past them at the stop. “No, stupid,” comes Cynthia’s reply. “It’s because we’re ugly.”
The sisters are on their way to a local talent show, where their sweetly harmonized rendition of a Merle Haggard chestnut handily outclasses the competition, but fails to win over the racist judges. One man who is impressed, however, is the contest’s disengaged Irish emcee, Dave (O’Dowd), an alcoholic would-be music promoter presumably led to rural Australia by the same inscrutable forces that brought the actor’s incongruously accented cop to Milwaukee in last year’s “Bridesmaids.”
When teen sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy) — the standout voice of the troupe, but prevented from performing by her protective parents — pleads with Dave to secure them an audition for a gig entertaining U.S. Marines in Vietnam, it’s not immediately clear why he accepts — or, indeed, why she thinks he’s the man for the job in the first place. Pic’s success is contingent upon auds accepting such fuzzy narrative logic. Similarly, it takes scarcely a snap of the fingers for Julie’s disapproving folks to come around, for the girls to recruit long-estranged half-caste cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) as a fourth member, and for Dave to convince the skeptical Gail that their calling lies in racy Motown music, as opposed to sleepy country ditties.
One or two montages later, the Sapphires (a hasty replacement for their less catchy original moniker, the Cummeraganja Songbirds) have evolved into a slick, Supremes-y collective, with the prettier, more vocally striking Julie having replaced Gail as frontwoman. As they hit the Southeast Asia circuit with an immediate bang, the narrative becomes scrappier: Kay takes up with a klutzy American pilot, Julie is courted by a big-league talent agent, and the mutually wary Dave and Gail begin to fall in love.
If the last of these subplots is the only one that really sticks, that has much to do with the actors involved. After his bigscreen breakthrough last year, ribald, crinkly-faced Irish TV comic actor O’Dowd is delightfully cast here; his dorky-dirty warmth and manic performance energy (he’s also required to sing, and rather lustily) keeps the proceedings bouncy even when the script loses its own fizz. Casting him as a romantic foil for the more stoic, vinegary intelligence of Mailman, the cast’s only carry-over from the stage production, is a small stroke of genius.
By contrast, the other three Sapphires never really come into focus. Tapsell and the awkwardly introduced Sebbens, both likable newcomers to the screen, suffer the most from the script’s crowding of threads toward the end, when things turn rough in Vietnam. Mauboy’s character is only marginally more developed, though the “Australian Idol” graduate and platinum-selling recording artist gets to make more of an impact via the film’s many zestily choreographed musical numbers, her sensational voice bringing youth and vitality even to such cruise-ship standards as “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch.”
The tight musical arrangements of such soul classics, together with Ben Osmo’s crisp sound design, rep the chief virtue of a bright, attractive tech package. D.p. Warwick Thornton, who shot and directed 2009’s considerably bleaker Aussie breakout “Samson and Delilah,” has little room for such atmospherics here, but keeps things sparky and sunlit, lending perhaps too much postcard sheen to the film’s Shanghai location work. Also of note are Tess Schofield’s witty costumes; the characters’ daytime apparel appears perhaps a trifle unworn, but an array of sequin-sprayed performance garb gives these Sapphires the requisite shimmer.