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Originally published Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 3:01 PM

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‘The Sapphires’ sing a familiar tune, with spirit

A movie review of the tuneful “The Sapphires,” inspired by a true star-is-born story set in Australia in the ’60s.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘The Sapphires,’ with Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Chris O’Dowd. Directed by Wayne Blair, from a screenplay by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, based on the stage play by Briggs. 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking. Seven Gables.

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“The Sapphires” feels like a movie you’ve already seen, but it’s nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable, like a pop song that’s no less infectious when you know every word. Inspired by a true story, it begins in 1958 on Cummeragunja Mission in the Australian Outback, when a sweet trio of Aborginal preteen girls serenade their families and friends on a makeshift stage. Ten years later, the girls are adults and still singing their favorite country songs — but can’t get ahead in a country where all-white audiences don’t want to see them on stage. However, they’re quickly “discovered” by an Irish musician named Dave (Chris O’Dowd, of “Bridesmaids”), who persuades them to dump their current song list (“Country music is whining”) for Motown-style soul music.

It’s not difficult to guess what comes next: makeovers (miniskirts, go-go boots, pouffed-up hair); success, in the form of a tour to Vietnam to entertain American troops; squabbling and jealousies within the group; romance. But the actresses (Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy and Shari Sebbens play the three sisters and a cousin who joins them) sing like angels, making this movie’s score a pleasure, and O’Dowd’s Dave is a kick as he tries to wrangle four strong personalities removed from their comfort zone. Initially the girls still sound sweet, even when they sing R&B; he has to work with them to add some grit to their style.

Directed by Wayne Blair from a screenplay by Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs (whose mother was a member of the Aboriginal singing group that inspired this film), “The Sapphires” movingly reminds us of a time of troubled race relations in Australia while keeping us humming along — a tricky balance, but one that it maintains nicely.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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