'Great World of Sound'

This is a country where everyone is convinced they have undiscovered talent, but what's truly widespread is the talent to connive and the willingness to be taken in. Witness "Great World of Sound," an involving, offbeat and truly unusual American independent film.

Enthusiastically received at Sundance, "Great World" is an intriguing look at our obsession with being successful and famous, at the deals we make that we fool ourselves aren't really with the devil. And it reveals a world of musical strivers so unnerving it makes the run-up to "American Idol" look like tryouts for the Metropolitan Opera.

As directed by Craig Zobel and written by George Smith and Zobel, "Great World" has confidence in its offbeat story and its ability to tell it. Far from a standard brand, the film displays an empathy for gently eccentric behavior and the will to be both realistic and pointedly satiric.

Set in today's mobile, unsettled America, where, as someone says, "constant motion is the new laziness," "Great World" begins with a delicate moment: a long-playing record is taken out of its sleeve and spray-painted gold by unseen hands. Quietly, unobtrusively, we are being told that not everything we're about to see is going to be on the up and up.

Things are certainly not looking up for Martin (Pat Healy), an unassuming sad-sack type who is forced to hold things together with a large paper clip after his belt falls apart before a preliminary job interview.

Martin and several others get a call-back and hear a motivational talk from the confident Shank (John Baker), the head of an independent record label called Great World of Sound, or GWS, who explains that what he's offering is work as A&R executives, men whose job it is to hit the road and discover new talent for GWS to record.

There is a catch, however, for the fortunate artists GWS decides to sign. As Shank explains it, these people have to share financial responsibility with the record company, have to make a good-faith down payment to show commitment to the process and help with the costs. In other words, they have to come up with some money. Immediately.

Timid Martin and gung-ho Clarence (Kene Holliday), a black man who's clearly experienced harder times than most, are too desperate for a job to look too closely at this situation. They partner up and hit the road, scouting for the talent attracted to their cut-rate hotel room by advertisements placed in local newspapers.

A good part of "Great World of Sound" is taken up with these auditions, as the film allows us to see and hear dozens of wildly inappropriate individuals and groups, people who in most cases are blessed with major dreams and minor talent. We also get to see Martin and Clarence's sales pitch, how they try to persuade the artists to come up with money any way they can.

What you wouldn't know without being told is that "Great World of Sound," in a nod to reality TV, has in fact filmed real people attracted by actual newspaper ads who were recorded by hidden cameras without knowing that they were being photographed. Though everything was explained after the shooting was over, and no one's audition was used in the final film without their permission, it is hard not to feel a bit queasy about the subterfuge involved.

There is more to "Great World of Sound," however, than its music scenes. We see involving character development, as Martin and Clarence come to have doubts about what exactly it is they are involved with. The film makes us understand that there are dreamers on both sides of the mike, and it's an open question finally which group is the most delusional, the most out of touch.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"Great World of Sound." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. In limited release.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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