(Buy Great World of Sound at Amazon.)
Fame is the great American lie. What was once the natural result of a collective fascination, the rise of an individual into the stratosphere of public attention, has become, like so much of our 21st Century world, a manufactured competitive process. The creation of celebrities represents the apotheosis of the new, corporate individual. Artistic merit, always the ground zero of critical relativity and personal taste, seems to be beside the point. We have created a new class of young people whose actual lives are merely the sit-com spin-off for an entire line of manufactured goods, endorsements of existing brands, production companies that create vehicles for the extension of the personal corporation, and a media that continues to sell the public on the idea that all you need to do is be young, beautiful, wealthy and willing to expose yourself with unconscious abandon to the depths of human behavior and you, too, can live the dream.
What is a person of conscience to do? Craig Zobel’s answer to that question is to hold up a two-way mirror to the collective corruption of the American dream. In his extraordinary film, Great World of Sound (released this past February on DVD by Magnolia Home Entertainment), Zobel takes the hypocrisy of the dream and brings it to the grassroots, to the embryonic moment when the expectation of fame meets the con of possibility. Martin (Pat Healy) is an unemployed, working class white guy with dreams of participating in the music industry, of being a part of the world of artistic creation. After accepting a gig at a small record label, he is partnered with Clarence (Kene Holiday)—a smooth talking, sharp dressing African American salesman—and the pair hit the road, looking for the next big thing.
The plan is simple: place an ad in a local newspaper promising the opportunity to audition for a record contract and watch the moths flock to the flame. Once the audition is over, each artist is offered the opportunity to record their work if they will make a simple $3000 down payment to cover the costs of recording. As Clarence makes the hard sell, Martin’s own conscience starts to get the better of him. Slowly, with the conflicted soul of a worker who needs the wages but understands the Faustian bargain proposed in the work itself, Martin recognizes the process as untenable and begins to find a way to jump ship before what remains of his credibility is corrupted for good.
Zobel handles Martin and Clarence’s fall from grace with a knowing dignity, imbuing the proceedings with an emotional realism as his characters struggle with the structure of the scam. For the audition scenes, the film’s most emotionally raw sequences, Zobel placed an advertisement in local papers that made Martin and Clarence’s offer a reality. He then took his camera and placed it behind a two-way mirror and filmed as real people, interspersed with actors, showed up to earn their big break. Watching Holiday and Healey improvise their pitch with the real-life musicians is deeply engrossing (and, in many ways, a sly commentary on the nature of acting itself), and the surrealism of these moments, of Zobel’s commitment to observing the true nature of the fame game, makes the slow-building consciousness of his lead characters all the more painful.
Magnolia Home Entertainment’s DVD release of the film is a handsome package featuring an entertaining audio commentary and a few deleted scenes, which do little to expand upon the film’s tightly constructed narrative (but are enjoyable nonetheless). Of course, for real illumination (and here Magnolia’s timing could not have been better), one need only turn off the DVD player at the end of the film and switch over to Fox’s American Idol, the pinnacle of Zobel’s thesis. Watching those young and hungry singers karaoke their way through a national popularity contest, offered like grist for an insatiable mill of judgment and attention, Great World Of Sound feels more prescient than it did upon its theatrical release in 2007. A corrective to the lie of that corrosive dream, Great World Of Sound is an essential film for our time, a reminder of what is left behind with every step toward the bright, shining mirror of celebrity.
— Tom Hall