Great World of Sound

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South by Southwest

AUSTIN -- A movie about conscience that flatly refuses the catharsis and redemption a mainstream feature would demand, "Great World of Sound" is a dirty gem, shining despite the modesty of its production. More solid and satisfying than many of today's indie offerings, it should connect with audiences who want more in the art house than lite versions of Hollywood fare.

Combining quiet domestic scenes with verite-style workplace material, the film follows two men who have just been hired as producers for a tiny record company. Their boss, whose credentials include work with a few long-forgotten one-hit wonders, wants them to beat the bushes for new talent, but only sign those who are willing to share the financial risk of recording -- say, to pay $3,000 of the $10,000 the company claims a CD costs to make.

Viewers will understand from the start -- before money is mentioned, in fact -- that this is a classic scam (one victimizing not only the customer but, most likely, the salesman as well). That Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday) don't recognize that, or at least refuse to admit it, speaks to their economic situation: They can't afford to see the job for what it is.

So they set out on the road, turning cheap hotel rooms in Biloxi or Birmingham into makeshift audition offices. We watch a parade of hopefuls in sequences resembling a romantic comedy's blind-date montage: disaster after disaster, from earnest Christian inspirationalists to avant-garde outfits wielding theremins and video equipment. The salesmen struggle to find something to like in each performance, then awkwardly bring up financial matters with singers who had no idea they'd be asked to pay for their shot at fame.

Over the course of a few expeditions, the men teach themselves the manipulative art of salesmanship, working up a cajoling spiel as surprisingly persuasive as those used to hawk Bibles in the Maysles brothers' classic docu "Salesman." Constructing these exaggerations of the truth, though, makes it harder and harder for Martin to believe in the product he's selling -- setting up a conflict with his partner Clarence, an older black man who has seen enough flim-flam to know what he was doing almost from the start.

The unacknowledged deceptions fester, leading the men into a conflict that's a fascinating study of character and survival at the lower end of the working class. Director Craig Zobel and his screenwriting collaborator George Smith include just enough scripted drama to support the film's improvisational, docu-like core, which convincingly puts across Martin's immersion in this strange world.

The film feels authentic, it turns out, because it's true: Press notes reveal that Zobel's father did just this job (a scam called "song sharking") in the '70s, working for a company whose fate inspired the film's resolution. What's more, the filmmakers became scammers themselves, placing "Want to be a star?" ads in newspapers and secretly recording auditioners for the film, revealing the truth only after the scene was done.

Those tactics sound less scandalous in the wake of "Borat," though Zobel's defense -- that he misled the innocent in order to immunize them against future hucksters -- smells a lot like the rationalizations Martin eventually rejects. Whatever the ethical issues of the production, though, the result is a brilliant, inventive examination of the lies we tell ourselves and others in order to survive.

GREAT WORLD OF SOUND
Magnolia Pictures
GWS Media/Plum Pictures
Credits:
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Craig Zobel, George Smith
Producers: Craig Zobel, Richard Wright, David Gordon Green, Melissa Palmer
Executive producers: Mike Chapman, Matt Chapman, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Richard Wright
Music: David Wingo
Co-Producer: Sophia Lin
Costume designer:
Editors: Jane Rizzo, Tim Streeto
Cast:
Martin: Pat Healy
Clarence: Kene Holliday
Layton: Robert Longstreet
Pam: Rebecca Mader
Shank: John Baker
Running time -- 104 minutes
No MPAA rating
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