I can’t imagine anyone concocting a movie about four Aboriginal girls entertaining American troops in Vietnam in the late 1960s unless it were based on a true story. Other aspects of The Sapphires have clearly been fictionalized, but the result is a crowd-pleaser that balances irresistible r&b music hits, dynamic performances, and comedy with the serious undercurrent of racial tension during a socially tumultuous period. It’s a sly way of confronting disturbing facets of Australian history without turning off an audience.

It helps that the leading actors are so skillful and appealing, beginning with Chris O’Dowd as a roguish Irishman who becomes the girls’ manager; the spontaneity of his humor is matched only by the charm and honesty of his performance. Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens, and Miranda Tapsell effectively convey the distinctive personalities (two sisters and their cousins) that made up the unlikely but talented singing group.

The screenplay by Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson is based on Briggs’ successful stage play, inspired by the stories Briggs heard from his mother, who was one of the real-life Sapphires. Director Wayne Blair manages to juggle the film’s diverse ingredients quite well, if not always seamlessly: some of the story points are heavy-handed, to be sure. But whatever nitpicks I could cite melt away under the film’s infectious high spirits—and that parade of songs, including “I’ll Take You There,” “What a Man,” and “Hold On, I’m a Comin’.”

The Sapphires is a feel-good movie of universal appeal, with just enough social history to give it substance along with entertainment value. I hope word-of-mouth is strong enough to win it the audience it deserves here in the States.