Great World of Sound, The

Sundance Film Fest 2007 (Spectrum)–An audience-pleasing riff on the underbelly of the “American Idol” phenomenon, “Great World of Sound” is the modest but charming and provocative feature directing debut of Craig Zobel.

World-premiering at Sundance, this reality-inspired comedy has been pleasing viewers wherever it plays, be it Park City in January, the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and I am sure the same reaction will repeat when it opens theatrically September 21.

The film stars Pat Healy and Kene Holliday as Martin and Clarence, two “normal” southern guys who get caught up in the excitement of a record industry talent-scouting scheme. Unemployed one day and record producers the next, Martin and Clarence sign new acts and hit the road looking for the “next big thing.” But there's a question, even a moral dilemma: What happens once the checks are cashed

The filmmaker would like to believe that their playful feature represents a contemporary take on the classic American story of the confidence man, evoking conflicted hucksters from Willy Loman (in Arthur Miller's masterpiece “Death of a Salesman”) to the Maysles Brothers seminal documentary, “Saleseman.” But you can add to their list of inspirational sources every American comedy or dramedy about the arts and crafts of being a salesman, including Barry Levinson's still underrated 1987 comedy, “Tin Men,” and of course, David Mamet's acerbic “Glengarry Glen Ross.” In other words, all those pictures about seedy charmers that seem to reflect a uniquely American phenom and to touch a uniquely American nerve.

In format and approach, “Great World of Sound” owes quite a bit to Sacha Baron Cohen's hilarious and original “Borat,” a rude, inventive comedy that might prove more influential than given credit to upon initial release. With real-life audition footage weaved into the fictional narrative, Zobel explores the outer limits of our desire for celebrity, where big dreams beget bigger illusions, and fame always has its price.

More a disarming than truly provocative treatise on the zany obsession with fame and celebrity, “Great World of Sound” joins a cycle of recent films, each of which touches on similar issues with its own particular angle, such as Tom DiCillo's “Delirious,” as well as Steve Buscemi's “Interview.”

Pat Healy plays Martin, a seemingly uncomplicated southern guy with a resume that includes experience at a few small-town radio stations, where he mostly did engineering work. Unemployed, Martin responds to an ad in the paper for a company called Great World of Sound, which is setting up shop in a generic office park.

After his interview, Martin is invited to attend a Saturday seminar explaining what the job entails. The session proves to be crucial for he meets there the larger-than- life and truly eccentric Clarence (Kene Holliday). The duo hits it off right away.

At the seminar, an articulate but somewhat slimy man named Shank (John Baker) explains that the participants have been selected out of a field of 80 applicants to be A&R executives for GWS, seeking out fresh and untapped musical talent. GWS will put out a record for these artists. “All” they ask is upfront financial commitment to show theyre serious, and to allay the costs of studio recording time and marketing; GWS bills itself as an indie record company working on modest budgets.

Shank and his cohort then discuss how much money the producers will make. To prove the viability of his proposal, Shank dials into his bank account, letting the whole conference room hear his $13,000+ balance.

At first, Martin is suspicious, but Clarence holds that this may represent a whole new way of looking at the worlda more luxurious lifestyle, for one thing. Size matters, as “Titanic” helmer James (King of the World) Cameron announced to the world from the Oscar telecast podium in 1997. Hence, Clarence argues that if they sign talent that hits it big, theyll hit it big with them. Favoring the idea of helping new artists, Martin signs onand the real saga begins.

Clarence and Martin start auditioning acts as a team, all of them bad. While Martin can barely disguise his displeasure, Clarence is more of a natural. There's sort of division of labor between the couple: Clarence encourages those who audition, while Martin explains the financial commitment the company will need from the artists.

When a skeptical neophyte producer admits at a staff meeting that he thought they were only supposed to sign the good ones, Shank compares GWS to a university, a real stab at he American higher-education system. Shank's thesis is that to support the best and the brightest, colleges and universities must also admit mediocre and below-mediocre students.

Work proceeds and Clarence and Martin prove to be among the best of the GWS crew. As a result, the company sends them on the road to other cities in order to audition musicians responding to ads. Armed with the dubious gold records that Shank has displayed in the sparse GWS offices, the odd couple holds musical auditions in cheap and sleazy hotel rooms.

Predictably, in the middle of the story, things start going downhill. First, they shockingly realize that GWS has booked them into a motel room with only one bed. Then, they are sent on a business trip with one-way plane tickets, only to find that GWS has not booked them return flights home. It gets even worse, when they discover that some are the artists theyve signed are not having favorable experiences in the recording studio.

As the veneer falls away from GWS, Clarence and Martin have no choice but to reconcile the excitement and escape that their new jobs have provided them with a harsher, down-and-dirty reality. Welcome to the land of salesmen, as depicted by Miller, Maysles, and Mamet. Have Martin and Clarence become scam artists, or are they victims of the scam themselves And where does one locate the roots of the problem, in the system and its seductive culture and/or on a more individualistic level Can ordinary Americans resist the tempting prospects of making easy money and achieving quick fame

The entire ensemble is good, beginning with Healy and particularly Holliday (who voiced Roadblock in the “G.I. Joe” cartoon and Matlocks sidekick Tyler), whose part is more flamboyant.

According to reports, the thespians improvised many of their lines, and some of them are really funny, such as: When Jesus walked on water, the first thing he did was get out of the boat! Or when Healy says, out of the blue, Im not gonna drink, because I just brushed my teeth.

“Great World of Sound” benefits immensely from the experience and acquired savvy of the filmmakers. Director Zobel served on the crew of David Gordon Greens early films, and Green now serves as executive producer of his debut, bringing an authentic Southern touch to the proceedings out of first-hand familiarity: Most of the saga is set in and around Charlotte, North Carolina.

More significantly, for a while, Zobel made a living by working on reality TV shows like “The Apprentice,” where he became acquainted and fascinated by how desperate people were to get on TV, with little care or no concern at all about the process, as if the end result justifies all the means. In its god parts, which are plentiful, his film shows that kind of inside knowledge and intriguing fascination,

Cast

Martin (Pat Healy)
Clarence (Kene Holliday)
Layton (Robert Longstreet)
Gloria (Tricia Paoluccio)

Credits

Running time: 105 Minutes.

Magnolia Pictures Release of a GWS Media presentation in association with Plum Pictures.
Produced by Melissa Palmer, David Gordon Green, Richard Wright, Craig Zobel.
Executive producers: Daniela Taplin Lundberg, Matt Chapman, Mike Chapman.
Co-producer, Sophia Lin.
Directed by Craig Zobel.
Screenplay, George Smith and Craig Zobel.
Camera: Adam Stone.
Editors: Tim Streeto, Jane Rizzo.
Music: David Wingo.
Production designer: Richard Wright.
Art director and costume designer:: Elizabeth Steinfels.
Set decorator: Elliot Glick.