The Reeler


September 13, 2007

Great World of Sound

Small-town scamming opus paves the path of corporate dishonesty

I have the (statistically unverifiable) feeling that American business dealings are more prone to grift and bad faith than elsewhere in the first world. Other countries certainly have their scandals -- see Claude Chabrol's 2006 Comedy of Power, a brilliant gloss on the Affaire L’Elf -- but Americans seem especially preoccupied with cheating their potential clients and partners in dealings large and small. Perhaps it's a side effect of the insane emphasis we place on work and number of hours the average American logs (the French laugh at us after polishing off their 35-hour work week). On its surface, Great World of Sound has little in common with news reports on Enron and its heirs, focusing as it does on the smallest of scams in the least significant of towns. But dishonesty has to start somewhere, and Great World implicitly shows us where it leads.

Martin (Pat Healy) is a likable enough guy with seemingly no direction, career- or otherwise. Out of inertia as much as anything, he winds up with a company called Great World of Sound, whose purported goal is to discover, record and sell undiscovered talent. Translation: song sharking, a con game in which the untalented are persuaded to pay money to their "producer" as a sign of good faith and commitment to stardom. Martin and partner Clarence (Kene Holliday) are sent to small Southern towns to sit in hotel rooms and listen to performers before taking them for as much money as they can. Their jobs begin softly: bluntly named boss Shank (John Baker) serves up a lot of blather about signing as many people as possible, so that those with actual talent can be culled from large quantities of crap. The more profitable Martin and Clarence prove as a team, the worse the men and their bait are treated.

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Anyone going into Great World of Sound should be aware of its central gimmick: the numerous audition scenes in the movie are real musicians in front of hidden cameras dickering with Healy and Holliday's adept improvisations. There are two exceptions, involving characters who have later plot strands; everyone else is strictly there for one-off scenes. Qualms about exploitation are beside the point; if anything, people's willingness to sign release forms after they learned of the project's true nature (money never exchanged hands) reinforces the most obvious part of Zobel's agenda, exposing the modern-day craving for Warhol's 15 minutes. Zobel features a cross-section of performers (from local access TV-caliber bizarre and bad to reasonably polished) and how the difference in quality doesn't matter. Everyone gets screwed within the narrative; the smarter ones (like a band who have their own recording studio) simply walk away. Most don't; in the context of the narrative, that's alarming.

The snigger factor of the more terrible performances -- though a good, cheap laugh -- is the least interesting thing about Great World of Sound. What Zobel captures, using small indicators to increasingly depressing effect, is the moment when moral compromise warps internal character. The very nature of the job demands screwing over strangers in person; it's a slightly less ornate pyramid scheme. Anyone who has foolishly responded to a dubious classified ad should see dense warning clouds of smoke when Healy's awkward interview responses get him "the job," or when the shitty, low-rent surroundings of a supposedly big business are entered.

Healy and Holliday slowly realize what they're doing but can't stop; they need the money. Healy responds with an ferociously introverted performance; the flip-side to Peter Sarsgaard's similar turn in Shattered Glass, he's trying hard not to know the details. Holliday brings his charisma to full bore, alternately smooth-talking and bullying the targets into submission. (The fact that Holliday is a sometime evangelical minister in reality is kind of disturbing; regardless, he's similarly superb.) They're half the show, and they dramatize moral erosion perfectly. The other half is Zobel's Southern regional tour, an atmospheric journey through towns whose lack of regional flavor and generic shittiness is precisely what makes them interesting. From there to Enron is a small leap to make; Great World of Sound makes it easy to translate the micro into macro.

Comments (1)

I saw this a while ago, and have to disagree - I think not knowing that the musicians are real people who were unwittingly acting in a while adds an extra layer of appreciation after the fact. I saw it without knowning, and kept wondering where they how they great so much great local/unknown actors.

I certainly don't think that knowing the "gimmick" on your way in the theatre hurts the film in any way, but by the same token, I don't know that it's necessary to make it clear to people before they see it.

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