A rowdy charmer from Australia, "The Sapphires" illustrates how the same old story — in this case, the one about a 1960s girl group and its struggles — can be freshened up through the novelties of place and characterization. There's very little in Wayne Blair's movie you haven't seen before, and with most of the same clichés, but you still feel an exuberant kick when the three Aborigine sisters (plus one cousin) launch into the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" before a crowd of Vietnam-era G.I.'s.
"The Sapphires" is a (very) fictionalized account of the experiences of two singers, Laurel Robinson and Lois Peeler, based on a stage play by Robinson's son, co-screenwriter Tony Briggs. In the film, the three McCrae sisters and their cousin grow up far out in the outback, singing hymns as children and progressing to American C&W by early adulthood. Gail (Deborah Mailman) is the fierce mother hen, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) the party girl, and kid sister Julie (Jessica Mauboy) has the voice. The cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), is lighter-skinned than the rest and becomes part of Australia's notorious Stolen Generations, forcibly removed and raised by the state to "fit into" white society.
By the time the sisters reel her back — Kay's so assimilated by this point that she's hosting Tupperware parties — the group has come under the spell of Dave Lovelace ("Bridemaids" star Chris O'Dowd), a shabby, alcoholic Svengali who hears greatness in them. Under his tutelage, they switch names (from the Cummeraganja Songbirds to the Sapphires) and ditch the Merle Haggard numbers for the glories of late-'60s soul music. "The Sapphires" coasts on our fondness for Sam and Dave and Marvin Gaye — familiar but foolproof movie chestnuts like "Soul Man" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" — but the actors can really sing (Mauboy was a runner-up on "Australian Idol") and the soundtrack's house band plays with propulsive flair. The movie sounds great.
The rest of "The Sapphires" is agile enough that you don't mind the girls' formulaic troubles with romance and the road. Dave gets the group on a tour of US Army bases in Vietnam, and what seems at first an upbeat gloss on a terrible era gradually gains enough bite (and PG-13 wartime violence) to keep an audience involved.
It helps that the characters are just very likable, with Mailman as the oldest Sapphire giving a performance that's first among equals. A beautiful Sherman tank of a woman, Gail is proud, defensive — the film is blunt about the everyday racism of the period's white Australians — and unexpectedly humbled when she has to take a back seat to her kid sister onstage. Her romance with O'Dowd's shambolic Dave builds in sweetly funny increments, so that even at the script's most predictable, the emotions feel honest.
Other movies, notably 2002's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," have dramatized the trauma of the Stolen Generations and the wrenching societal changes Australia underwent in the late 1960s. "The Sapphires" just sings and dances all over those changes, and quite nicely, too. The movie has the indulgent fondness of a gift from a son to his talented mum and aunties. But it also feels the funk, and that's what counts.