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Vocals real stars of tale of Aborigine singers in Vietnam

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Goalpost Pictures
Deborah Mailman, Chris O'Dowd, Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens in 'The Sapphires'

You can pick the story apart and worry over what seems like a glossed-over telling of events and fret about this or that, but when it comes to “The Sapphires,” you'd be better off taking the following four words of advice:

Shut up and listen.

The film, based on a true story, follows four Aborigine girls in Australia, shepherded by a drunken Irishman to fleeting success as singers performing for troops in Vietnam. Director Wayne Blair's first feature is a little too feel-good, even when it gets melodramatic, and there's never a question of where the story is going, never a hint of doubt. It is not a great movie.

But oh, can those girls sing, belting out '60s R&B hits in a way that both honors the original songs and brings something new to them. This isn't an extended “American Idol” video. It's pure joy.

Sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman, who is outstanding), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) have been singing together since they were children growing up in the Australian outback, where their Aboriginal families have been relegated to a reservation. They go into town to compete in a talent show in a bar, where they're subjected to racist taunts and humiliations.

They don't win, of course, because they'd never be allowed to, even though they are by far the best act. They do, however, catch the eye and ear of Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), a drunken musician and promoter who sees an opportunity.

They answer an ad for tryouts to entertain the troops in Vietnam, after reuniting with their light-skinned cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens). It's not a spoiler to say that they make the cut and head for Vietnam.

Seemingly large problems are talked up and then just sort of fall by the wayside. It makes for a less-complex telling of a story that co-writer Tony Briggs based on the experiences of his mother, Beverley.

But man, that singing. Mauboy's Julie has the best pipes of the bunch; Mauboy was an “Australian Idol” contestant. Her talent naturally evokes some jealousy among her sisters in the film, and her attitude rankles Gail especially. As the oldest, Gail has long been the de facto leader of the group, of the girls. She's strong-willed and opinionated, which means a lot of clashes with Dave, which inevitably leads to ... well, guess.

So what? It doesn't matter. It's nearly impossible to sit through “The Sapphires” without a smile on your face.

Bill Goodykoontz is a film critic for The Arizona Republic.

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