Among the many ways that Australia's history mirrors our own is that both nations sent native peoples to reservations and sent soldiers to fight a futile war in Vietnam. Yet those two shameful episodes Down Under are the background hum for a calculated crowd-pleaser called "The Sapphires."

Draining most of the blood, sweat and tears from a true story, this music-minded movie capably covers a song we've heard a hundred times before.

One place where we've heard this tune is in the 1991 film "The Commitments." As in that sleeper hit, "The Sapphires" mines mirth from an Irishman teaching novices how to sing and dance like an African-American soul revue.

Here the Irishman is Chris O'Dowd (the cop from "Bridesmaids) as Dave, a former cruise-ship entertainer who finds himself marooned in the Outback in 1968.

The interesting twist in this fable is that the amateurs he discovers, trains and manages are Aborigines - and thus black in the eyes of white Australians.

Three harmonizing sisters - bossy Gail (Deborah Mailman), cheeky Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and teen mother Julie (Jessica Mauboy) - live and entertain their kin in a segregated village. When they enter a talent contest at a whites-only bar, they are insulted by the locals, but drunken emcee Dave likes their voices, if not their taste in country-Western music.

He takes the girls under his broken wing to groom them for an audition to tour Vietnam. To round out the sound, they add Kay (Shari Sebbens), the lighter-skinned cousin who was taken from the reserve and raised by a white family in Melbourne.

The tragedy of stolen Aborigine children was the subject of the fine film "Rabbit-Proof Fence"; but the inexperienced cast and stereotypical script of "The Sapphires" don't dig deeply into the dramatic soil surrounding racism or war. The tour of Vietnam is little more than a groovy backdrop for the girl's dance routines and soap-operatic personality clashes.

But the music is infectious, and so is the scruffy bloke who evokes it. Amid the amusing baubles, O'Dowd is a pot of gold.


The Sapphires

** 1/2

• Rated: PG-13 with sexuality, a scene of war violence and some strong language.

• Director: Wayne Blair.

• Cast: Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Miranda Tapsell, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens.

• Running time: 103 minutes.