Imagine “Tin Men” with singing instead of siding and you have the gist of Craig Zobel’s disarming debut feature “Great World of Sound,” in which a pair of huckster salesmen traverse the country signing undiscovered “talent” to a fly-by-night North Carolina record label. Blessed with a witty script (by Zobel and co-writer George Smith), a talented ensemble of little-known character actors and a Meredith Willson-like feel for just-plain-folks Americans, this low-key but enormously charming pic will give fest programmers something to sing about and could connect with specialized auds in the hands of a nurturing distrib.
Pic’s opening image — a hand spraypainting a vinyl record gold — in many ways sets the tone for everything that follows. Although we never find out exactly where that record ends up, there’s strong reason to believe it’s one of the ones employed as visual aids by aspiring record producers Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday).
The newest employees of a record label calling itself Great World of Sound, together they travel the highways and byways, from Biloxi to Birmingham, turning motels into makeshift audition studios and following their corporate directive to sign anyone, regardless of ability, able to pony up 30% of the supposed $10,000 demo recording fee.
An odd couple if ever there was one, Martin (a shy, skinny white guy with a background in radio engineering) and Clarence (a big, boisterous black guy with a room-filling personality) have almost nothing in common except that they both need a job badly enough and neither of them realizes, at least at first, the depths of their employer’s duplicity. Early on, Martin is so captivated by one young girl’s rendition of what she calls a “new National Anthem” (sample lyrics: “I’m like Texas, I’m like Texas, I’m like Texas only bigger”), he even agrees to pay for half her recording costs out of his own pocket.
A scene like that might have descended into boldfaced parody, but Zobel isn’t interested in generating easy comic payoffs. His real subject is the lust for overnight success — for maximum rewards achieved with minimal efforts — whether you happen to be the one buying into that dream or the one selling it. And so, what could have been a feature-length auditions episode of “American Idol” instead emerges as a wry contemplation of the American success ethic.A former associate of director David Gordon Green (who shares producer credit here), Zobel employs overlapping dialogue and a roving, zooming camera reminiscent of the films of Robert Altman. He also has a deft touch with actors and a strong sense of place reminiscent of the unassuming, regionally made indie films that were once a Sundance staple, but now appear to be an endangered species.