American Idol is the target of this scathing satire

Great World of Sound

on September 14, 2007 by Mark Keizer
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To pull off an effective scam, a conman must know what drives the mark: Greed? Lust for power? Vanity? Craig Zobel, director and co-writer of this modestly pitched, very entertaining debut feature, knows there's nary an American Idol wannabe who wouldn't drop 100 IQ points to convince themselves that the A&R executive gushing over that poorly written and horribly performed song really wants to make them a star. But going after our fame-oriented culture is easy. Zobel keeps pushing until capitalism itself becomes a sort of pyramid scheme, where everyone tries to get ahead on the unsuspecting backs of others. It's a shrewd combination that still manages to be immensely charming with a ramshackle sense of humor.

Martin (Pat Healy, a thin reed ready to snap) and Clarence (Kene Holliday) meet at a seminar for new employees at a fly-by-night record company called Great World of Sound. The seminar is captained by company founder Shank (John Baker), who claims that GWS (the company's initials match those of its owner, a red flag right there) is opening a North Carolina office to sign new talent. Considering the current state of pop music, it's not surprising that Martin and Clarence, having no experience in music other than listening to it, would be charged with finding local talent. But both are enthused by the opportunity, even if Martin blanches at having to squeeze each act for 30 percent of the $10,000 it costs to record and market a CD.

After initial success in town, Martin and Clarence are sent on the road to audition acts in various cities. Setting up shop in cheap motel rooms, the pair listens, swoons, then goes in for the kill, extracting money to offset the cost of an album that will never be made. But here's Zobel's genius move: The musicians (a generous term in some instances) are not actors. Emulating the film's con, Zobel placed ads in local newspapers soliciting bands to audition for a small record company. Respondents performed for Healy and Holliday, in character as Martin and Clarence. The acts were recorded using hidden cameras and only after the two leads tried to extract money were the bands told the true nature of the project.

The movie never looks down on Martin and Clarence, nor does it pass judgment on anyone's behavior, including Shank and his slimy number two Layton (Robert Longstreet). There's a sense that possibly Clarence and definitely Martin know the operation is a scam from the get-go, but desperation can lower anyone's defenses. Martin's first inkling of doom is his unappreciated, and rather curious, passion for “The New National Anthem,” written by a young black girl who can't sing and isn't up to the demands of writing a new patriotic song. (Sample lyric: “This song is for your catamarans/and y'all with super-bad Trans Ams”). And when Shank begins sending Martin and Clarence one-way tickets out of town and putting them up in hotel rooms with one bed, they can't deny that not only have they been scammed, but they've been unknowingly scamming honest, if talentless, musicians.

Zobel, whose father ran the con depicted in the movie, gets a lot of mileage out of his low budget. The locations are down-market authentic, the haircuts scream Main Street barbershop, and the clothing is short-sleeved-dress-shirt sophisticated. The camera floats around capturing the actors, and Zobel isn't afraid to overlap dialogue that drips with flim-flam flair. At one point, Shank, broad-shouldered and infomercial unctuous, tells his junior execs to use metaphors to confuse their marks. Later, when a producer complains that GWS will sign absolutely anybody, Shank compares the company to a university that must admit lousy students to bankroll good ones. The confused producer is assuaged.

To the film's credit, Martin and Clarence never slap their foreheads in recognition of being had. The cloud slowly lifts, and the players slink back into their holes like embarrassed children. There is no catharsis. Great World of Sound makes its point quietly. Everyone wants a shortcut to success, and the culture is increasingly geared toward that end. Shank and his ilk know there's always another fish and the barrel keeps getting bigger.
Distributor: Magnolia
Cast: Pat Healy and Kene Holliday
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenwriters: George Smith and Craig Zobel
Producers: Melissa Palmer, David Gordon Green, Richard Wright and Craig Zobel
Genre: Comedy drama
Rating: R for language
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: September 14, 2007 NY, September 28 LA, October exp.
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