Chris O'Dowd is going to be a movie star. It's not a question of if but when. That was my initial reaction walking out of The Sapphires, an irresistible if unpolished feature debut from Aussie director Wayne Blair.
O'Dowd, the Irish comedian best known here as the sad-sack cop who falls for Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids and as Jemima Kirke's wannabe-hipster husband on HBO's Girls, is tall and lanky and doesn't look like anyone you'd pay 10 bucks to see. But there are multitudes beneath his scruffy, hangdog facade. As Dave Lovelace, a boozy soul-music savant who stumbles across a sister act of aboriginal singers shyly covering a Merle Haggard tune at a small-time outback talent show, O'Dowd gooses The Sapphires from a slight and slightly clichéd Down Under import to a Commitments-style crowd-pleaser.
Set in 1968 Australia, a time when the indigenous aborigines were fighting for the same rights that black protesters were demanding in America, The Sapphires is a film with a lot on its mind. Probably too much. It's better at cranking up R&B hits like Marvin Gaye's ''I Heard It Through the Grapevine'' than grappling with politics. And it's the music, after all, that makes Dave want to manage these angel-voiced outcasts despite the misgivings of the oldest, prickliest sister, Gail (Deborah Mailman). But first, he says, they have to eighty-six the country & western tunes and dial into Stax and Motown. "Ninety percent of all recorded music is shite," Dave tells them. ''The other 10 percent is soul.''
After a sequins-and-go-go-boots Supremes makeover, Dave books the group for the only gig they can score: entertaining U.S. troops in Vietnam. As they travel from hot spot to hot spot, performing to hooting GIs, the girls bicker and nearly come to blows with their ne'er-do-well Svengali. The segues from one scene to the next barely exist, but the performances are such feel-good dynamite, and O'Dowd is so effortlessly charming, that the filmmaking hardly matters. The Sapphires is a movie for your heart (and your ears and moneymaker), not your head. B+