Desperate for fame and an escape from the drudgery of their daily lives on the periphery of a racist Australian backwater, sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) enter a talent competition in a bar, much to the displeasure of the white locals. Despite losing out and causing a scene, they catch the eye of drink-addled Irishman Dave Lovelace (Chris O'Dowd), a former cruise ship entertainment manager now relegated to judging parochial contests. Lovelace convinces the trio to chuck country and western tunes in favour of sensual soul for an audition to perform for the troops in Vietnam. However, the girl group isn't complete without their long-lost cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) who used to perform with them in their youth, but has ended up living a white person's life in Melbourne. The unlikely five-piece end up in Vietnam, where their friendship and talent are tested to the limit.

The Sapphires started out onstage, and as with most pieces of musical theatre, the focus is on the songs while action in between serves mainly to build up to the next number. Musically, The Sapphires are outstanding; Australian Idol runner-up Mauboy shines particularly brightly as the quartet belt out renditions of classics such as 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine', 'Hold On, I'm Coming ' and 'What A Man'. A toe-tapping, sing-a-long of Mamma Mia proportions for sure, but a wonderful soundtrack does not a good film make.

Director Wayne Smith tries to shoehorn a wide variety of issues into the script - racism, war, alcoholism, family ties - but without ever exploring any of them with the depth they deserve. There's something unsatisfying about the girls' romantic relationships, none ever fully explored, while the wild abandon with which they quickly romance the soldiers in Vietnam seem less liberated than clunky and unlikely. Each of the women is given a specific caricature (sexy, feisty, shy, scary, like an indigenous 60s’ Spice Girls), which defines them throughout.

Former It Crowd geek-gone-Hollywood (recent turns in Bridesmaids and Gulliver’s Travels have seen the Sligo man turn on the charm stateside), O'Dowd's turn as the weary, failed Lovelace is one of the joys of the film. Like the four girls, he’s neatly shoved into a pigeonhole, but apparently there is still room for manoeuvre in the alcoholic Irishman stereotype. Here though, his bumbling charm and sardonic wit works well alongside the sharpness of ‘Momma Bear’ Gail, and he makes a surprisingly touching love interest. 

The film’s strength is in its wonderfully warming music and in its cast, who move effortlessly between comedy and melodrama, evoking plenty of laughter and perhaps even a few tears. It’s unlikely The Sapphires will win any plaudits for its deep and meaningful moments – though highlighting the struggles of the Aboriginal people both in Australia and abroad is a commendable and necessary task – but for mainstream audiences, this storming feel good film has the potential to cause a stir.