Sunday, March 30, 2008

Great World of Sound

By David Luhrssen
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The opening images are the tip-off—the unseen hands spray-painting yard sale LPs to look like gold records fit for a scam artist’s walls. The scammers in Great World of Sound work for a vanity record company posing as the real deal. The label pretends to produce and promote records by aspiring talent, “helping these young artists,” taking money from gullible performers only to dump a box of largely unmarketable discs on their doorstep.

Directed by Craig Zobel, the festival circuit favorite was itself built on a scam. Zobel lured wannabes to a cheap motel room for record label “auditions,” telling them later that they were being filmed for a movie about a fictionalized vanity company preying on folks like themselves. The performers who answered Zobel’s classified ad were mostly, but not entirely, cringeworthy—the sort of “American Idol” contenders that make spectacles of themselves before millions of laughing viewers.

Great World of Sound is a drolly-humorous commentary on the growing phenomenon of un- or marginally talented people “chasing their dreams” in public, too deluded, ignorant or lazy to hone their skills or pay their dues. They may be products of an educational system that awards gold stars for just showing up, a society where everyone gets a blue ribbon for “trying.” Or they may talented people shut out of the entertainment industry. Great World of Sound also wonders about the ethics of exploiting their dreams. The movie’s record label is a school of sharks, some of them more predatory than others.

Buoying Zobel’s flat, reality TV cinematography are the performances by GWS’ odd couple “talent scouts,” Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday). Martin is awkward inside his own skin, a balding white GenX nerd who isn’t entirely aware of the dishonesty of the deals he offers the motley gaggle of rappers and rockers, metalheads, country singers and folkies that troop through his motel room. He is like Bob Newhart’s ungainly but poker-faced grandson. Martin’s partner Clarence is a supremely confident African-American man, a smooth operator who could talk his way into Fort Knox and exit with his pockets bulging with gold. Some of the film’s funniest moments involve Clarence conning his own people by setting hapless Martin up as “the man” who doesn’t understand black America.

Along with a look into the seamy side of the music business, Great World of Sound examines the very real American class and racial distinctions that refuse to disappear.

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