PARK CITY, Utah — After Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood and so many other “American Idol” successes, maybe the time is finally right for you to get into the studio, lay your voice down on a track and make all your dreams come true.
Or maybe that’s exactly what they want you to think.
They are men like Martin and Clarence, two smooth-talking producers with Great World of Sound Records who are eager to make your demo and steer you toward superstardom. All they need is a few thousand dollars upfront — think of it as an investment in yourself.
But before you break out your checkbook, check this: Martin and Clarence are fictional. They are the stars of “Great World of Sound,” a “Borat”-style docudrama with a dark-side-of-“Idol” angle that rocked this year’s Sundance Film Festival and will be rolling into theaters September 14.
“We’re here to show the world that this thing exists,” star Pat Healy told MTV News at Sundance, discussing a con that dates all the way back to the era of Elvis but has resurfaced thanks to millions dreaming alongside their “Idol” heroes each week. “It’s difficult enough if you want fame and bad enough to get caught in something like that — maybe it’ll be a lesson to people watching it.”
“It’s a different approach to filmmaking,” added his co-star Kene Holliday. “We have a mix of reality filmmaking, as well as a script that we were basically following, and then we were thrust into a position where we did a lot of shooting with interactive auditions.”
In the film, Martin and Clarence are two low-level con men who set up shop in a hotel room, put a call out for local talent and offer record deals to any star-struck schmuck who walks in the door.
“The people that came through that door were … seeking a change in there lives,” Holliday recalled of the experiment, similar to the “Borat” concept of Sacha Baron Cohen’s character mixing reality with fictional characters. “Some of the talent was just incredible, and some of it was just damn doggy.”
From heartfelt Christian singers to a bizarre man wielding a theremin, all their performances were rewarded by opportunity knocking on the door. If they just put up a few thousand dollars, the company would pay the rest of the 10 grand it reportedly cost to press an initial group of CDs.
“A lot more than we ever expected, the checks came out,” Holliday recalled. “Then the producer [of the film] would come in and say, ‘We have your next appointments here’ … and you could hear them being debriefed in the next room — everybody [found out] they had been punked. … In some cases, the people would come back in and meet the director, or meet us as ourselves.”
If the aspiring singers chose not to be a part of the movie, they were thanked for their time and the footage was thrown out. But when “Great World of Sound” hits theaters, not only will audiences watch a real-life “Idol” playing out before their eyes, but they can also observe the regrettable gullibility of someone chasing a dream.
” ‘American Idol’ exists because the press promotes these overnight success stories,” Healy explained. “People are willing to put their sense of reason aside and walk into a hotel room with two guys they’ve never seen before in cheap clothes and believe that they’re going to be stars.”
“Everyone wants to be discovered,” Holliday added. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, there was a plethora of ‘song sharks,’ that’s what they call [the con men] who perform this particular type of service. … Now, with the advent of ‘American Idol,’ the song sharks are back, because it’s just too lucrative for them.”
As the star-struck singers often find, their “producers” have disconnected their phones, vanished to a different state and taken the money with them. The director of the film, longtime David Gordon Green partner Craig Zobel, exposed much of the con through remembrances of his dad — a real-life phony record producer during the late ’70s.
But before you start imagining Martin and Clarence as the villains of “Great World of Sound,” you should know that the film presents them as naive middlemen, desperate to hold down jobs and blinded to the scam by their own rose-colored glasses.
“We are presenting this as a real opportunity for people to change their lives — it’s not a scam,” Holliday said of the situation real-life sharks (including Zobel’s father) often find themselves in. “[Our characters] are the scammers, but we are being scammed. We are representing ourselves as record producers on the way to becoming proficient in this thing. We’re brand new at this, and the company that we’re working for, we don’t realize that they’re scamming us. We’re sending money to these guys, and they’re not doing any of the things that we’re promising people.”
It’s a pyramid scheme that dates back decades, but as “Great World of Sound” portrays, the waters that these sharks swim in are more inviting than ever before.
“Everybody thinks they can be famous now,” Healy shrugged. “There’s ‘American Idol,’ there’s 10 ‘American Idol’ knockoff shows now. For every Jennifer Hudson, there are a million more William Hungs who want to be her. It does make people more vulnerable to it, when they see an ad in the back of a newspaper to audition for a major record label. But it’s probably not true — people don’t get record contracts that way.”
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