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Music propels story of determination

Chris O’Dowd stars in “The Sapphires.”
Chris O’Dowd stars in “The Sapphires.”

“The Sapphires” advances what seems to be Chris O’Dowd’s all-out offensive to become the biggest charmer in movies today.

O’Dowd, who was Kristen Wiig’s affable suitor in “Bridesmaids,” plays Dave, a goofy soul musician (“I might be a little pale on the outside, but my blood runs Negro”) who hosts a talent show in a small Australian town in 1968.

Sleeping in his car and often falling asleep while the “talent” warbles, he’s clearly going nowhere until three Aboriginal sisters take the stage and blow him away.

They don’t win the contest, but they do win Dave as their manager, who shifts them from country music to R&B and accompanies them on a tour of Southeast Asia.

There’s plenty to quibble with in the ungainly “Sapphires,” which is predictable, simplistic and, in its attempts to comment on the Vietnam War, overly ambitious. But there is way more to like.

That begins with the self-deprecating appeal of O’Dowd, who also nails some sentimental bits toward the end, and it extends to the women who play the sisters (joined by a cousin, there are ultimately four Sapphires).

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and the others play the kinds of roles where each is given one characteristic to repeat, over and over, but they have big voices and funny, outsized personalities that come in handy when their barely competent manager screws up.

There’s also a lot of swell music, ranging from faithful covers of Motown staples to a sexed-up “I’ll Take You There,” in which the “there” is not the promised land the Staples Singers were talking about in the original version.

Music is what gets these girls off the reservation where they grew up, and “Sapphires,” which was inspired by a true story, is propelled by a strong sense of music’s power to connect people and change lives.

That power-of-music idea is planted early in “Sapphires,” before the women have met their future manager. The sisters are fighting with each other, but then their mom starts singing, and as if they can’t help it, they begin harmonizing with her on “Yellow Bird.” It’s a quiet little moment, but we can tell without being told that they’ve been singing this one together since they could toddle and they’ll keep singing it together until they die.

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