"Great World of Sound" is the name of the record label in Craig Zobel's comedy of the same name. It has a majestic old-school ring, doesn't it? You can hear folks who record for Stax or Sun or Motown jumping ship for one reason or another to make music at this legendary production company. The bad news is that it's bogus. Local musicians show up for an audition - in Charlotte, in Nashville - play their hearts out, and are praised into fronting some of the production costs for a recording session. That can be anywhere from $900 to $3,000, and it's money down the drain.
The scam has an upside: the movie itself. Of course, that's built on a sham, too. The filmmakers placed seemingly legitimate ads in local papers seeking aspiring musicians to come audition. Many answered. None knew Great World of Sound was an experiment. This sounds mean, but it turns a large section of the movie into a quasi-documentary about a musician's human need to be discovered, even at the cost of financial injury. The film traverses the pop-music industry's shady underbelly. It deftly grazes matters of sex and race and the ethics of salesmanship, while suggesting that the tension between being famous and not being broke can be illogical and very cruel, comically so.
Zobel wrote the movie with George Smith (it's the first for both), and they've centered the story around the dynamic between two Great World of Sound employees, grifting satellites of the opportunistic mother ship. One is Martin (Pat Healy), a meek, moral white guy, a pleaser from the radio business who just got this job. His partner in crime is a dapper, voluminous African-American charmer named Clarence (Kene Holliday). They have an unexpected click that understates the occasional clashes of their opposite natures - it's Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau dialed down to an Altmanesque key.
Their job, more or less, is to get potential acts to write them a check. At night in their cheap hotel, these two assess each other's strategies with illuminating specificity. But the wonder comes in watching them at work during the tryouts themselves. Those expectant and earnest looks on the musicians' faces are real, and, by extension, so must be Holliday's variegated enthusiasm - for gangsta rap, muscle rock, and droopy folk. You name it, he finds a way not simply to like it but to like it differently. He plays the race card, the virility card, the "I'm a really swell guy" card. And an envelope swells with checks. Healy, meanwhile, is really listening, really responding. He's not as enthusiastic or demonstrative. You can tell that the ethical implications of what the company (and maybe the movie) is asking him to do are churning in his mind.
This section of the film is a brilliant feat of chicanery. Zobel and his deft editors, Tim Streeto and Jane Rizzo, show Martin and Clarence working their magic for the better part of 45 minutes. A few encounters between the real musicians and the ersatz talent-scout producers, as with the singer who says her husband wrote "Take It to the Limit," are terrific. The movie's watershed, though, is the arrival of a girl named Kendra who has written a national anthem about national anthems. Chaperoned by her daddy, she sings it in an amusing warble that makes the lyrics unintelligible. When the song comes up again, I listened more closely, and it's acerbically funny. How Martin and Clarence are seduced by its "timeliness" is almost funnier.
My pulse went up at that point because it seemed like the movie was going to head somewhere brazen and farcical, that Martin and Clarence would really throw themselves behind this little girl and that oddly powerful song; and that it might meet up somehow with Altman's "Nashville" or something Billy Wilder might have done. I guess I really did want the Lemmon-Matthau movie.
"Great World of Sound" doesn't have that sort of ambition. That's no crime. It turns, instead, into a study of character and acquaintanceship. The scenes between Martin and his girlfriend (Rebecca Mader) don't entirely add up, but there is more to Clarence than meets the eye. The movie we've got is a work of earthbound realism, imbued with Altman's cynical sensibility and his way with naturalistic acting. The limitations are no big deal. It's smart, feeling, and ultimately moral. The last shot is even devastatingly worried, leaving you with hope that Zobel and Smith will only get better as filmmakers. They've a made a unique movie about work and stardom. Nothing is fair, Clarence says. He's right. Dreams here don't die. They're abducted, even his.