-By Katey Rich

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Before musicians could get themselves discovered on YouTube or MySpace, they were preyed upon by “song sharks,” con men who traveled the country signing undiscovered talent to a fake record label. By asking the artists to pay for their recordings up front, the men in charge collected some nice fees before skipping town with the winnings.

Craig Zobel, the director and co-writer of Great World of Sound, has done a great job capturing this seedy world, but exactly what he wants to say about it never shines out of his muddled, mildly entertaining film.

Martin (Pat Healy) has shuffled between radio jobs all over the South before responding to a newspaper ad placed by the record company Great World of Sound. We know immediately that the company is a sham, but are forced to watch as Martin teams up with Clarence (Kene Holliday), a fast-talking black man with the charisma of a gospel preacher. The two hit the road to audition dozens of hopefuls, but as Martin’s excitement over his new job gives way to suspicion, it’s only a matter of time before he and Clarence are sent out of town with a one-way ticket while the hucksters-in-chief make their escape.

Healy plays a great deadpan as sad-sack Martin, and he and Holliday make a classic comedy team, though the laughs are more like chuckles here. The filmmakers lured actual amateur musicians via newspaper ads, and their audition scenes, captured by hidden camera, have a painfully earnest and awkward quality that mesmerizes—for a while. Dozens are included, and while our restlessness helps us identify with Martin’s growing disillusionment, that also quickly gives way to outright boredom.

Two actors are thrown in with the real auditioners—a young black girl who has written a new national anthem (Mahari Conston) and a beautiful waitress with a golden voice (Tricia Paoluccio) who finally inspires Martin to quit the scam. The anthem, with lyrics like “Don’t nobody mess with me/You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding,” seems to genuinely strike a chord with Martin, though it’s so insane it seems like it should be a throwaway joke. The song’s lyrics are repeated throughout the film, and at the end seem intended to achieve some resonance, though their message is never really clear.

Martin’s path to an uncertain redemption is compelling toward the end, and his relationship with Clarence is touching, but Great World of Sound’s emotions are so low-key as to become almost inconsequential. The record company is staffed by some great characters, showboaters in the grand salesman tradition; the training scenes in the office are hilarious in their bravado, and the Southern-accented, gum-chewing second-in-command Layton (Robert Longstreet) is a delightful blowhard. For most of the film, though, Zobel gives us Martin, the kind of muted, depressed character found just about anywhere. Zobel seems so focused on deglamorizing the fraudulent company that he takes all the fun out of it, and Martin is such a blank that whatever lesson he gleans from the experience never makes its way to us.

Great World of Sound has its minor charms, but it never gets at the deeper, more interesting side of the fascinating world in which it’s set.

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