A healthy portion of Wayne Blair‘s The Sapphires, which I saw this afternoon, is cool, snappy, rousing, well-cut and enormously likable. (And dancable.) That would be the first 30% or 40%, when the true-life tale of an Aboriginal Supremes-like group assembled and took shape in Australia in 1968. This 40-minute section may seem a little too slick and familiar to some, but it definitely works.

But the main reason the film delivers overall is Chris O’Dowd‘s performance as Dave, a charmingly scuzzy boozer and Motown fanatic who steers the four girl singers (played by Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) away from country and towards soul music, and then takes them to Vietnam to entertain U.S. troops. Dowd’s manner and personality are a total kick — an absolute hands-down winner and the best reason to see The Sapphires, even when it turns sketchy in the last half or so. (He was Kristen Wiig‘s cop boyfriend in Bridesmaids.)

I was saying to myself during the first 10 or 15 minutes, “Whoa, this is pretty good…not as high-throttle razzmatzzy as Dreamgirls but I like it better.” And then it kept on going and hitting the marks for the most part. But then the quartet goes to Vietnam and the smoke and bombs and shrapnel become part of the narrative and the film, sorry to say, turns into a catch-as-catch-can slipshod hodgepodge — good music, relationships with guys, personal friction, exotic atmosphere. Unfortunate as this sounds, the Vietnam War is used strictly as a lively, occasionally dangerous backdrop as the girls sort out their various personal issues.

But when it’s not really working The Sapphires at least keeps the ball in the air with reasonable agility and sass. The analogy, come to think, isn’t really Dreamgirls as much as Hustle and Flow and The Commitments, at least during those first 40 minutes.

The soul classics are delightful to savor throughout. The music put me in a good mood right away and kept me there…well, during much of the running time.

Blair is a talented director who knows how to cut and groove and put on a show. It’s too bad that Vietnam and what appears to have been a slim budget overwhelm him somewhat. The script is by Aboriginal actor-writer Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson, and based on Brigg’s 2004 stage play, which was based on his mom’s true story (as the closing credits infom).