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The Great World of Sound

The Dark Side of American Idol

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

By Jessica Pallington

The Great World of Sound

Pat Healy and Kene Holliday in Craig Zobel's "Great World of Sound."

Magnolia Pictures
In the opening scene of Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound, a man's belt buckle breaks just as he's about to go into a job interview, and he replaces it with a large black paper clip. It's an apt visual. We're about to enter a world where everything is held together with clips and scotch tape, where the real thing is replaced with forgery. The images proliferate: fake flowers, mass produced plastic ducks, spray painted gold records, watered down coffee. Everything is broken, unwashed, poorly pasted into place. Even a bowl of spaghetti and meat balls looks dubious.
But into this territory a promise is whispered: "Your world is about to change." It's the promise given to the record producer recruits at the blaringly corrupt, fly-by-night Southern record company, Great Wall of Sound. And it's this same promise that's taken on the road by these men, in their search for the next big musical sensation. But everyone they meet is the next big musical sensation, at least once the artists fork over $3,000 to the company to have their dreams realized.

The film follows the road trips of the two 'best producers', the mismatched duo of Martin (Pat Healy) and Clarence (Kene Holliday), as they go from one seedy hotel room to the next in a depressing line up of small cities with fast food restaurants and low-end rental cars, sitting through an endless parade of pathetic auditions, and then scamming people down on their luck. It's an old scheme -- the "song shark" -- fake A&R men who promise stardom that must be paid for first, then vanish in the morning with the money.

But there's more to this con then the con men know. It's not just the auditioners being duped. The con men are also being conned. Hope is blind for the reeled-in dreamers as well as its salesmen. You're never quite sure how blind Martin and Clarence are, however, and much of the movie involves watching the two figure out exactly how much they've figured out, or when they'll realize they're being set up. With Clarence, we later learn the reason for his blindness. It's the most poignant moment in the film.

This subject of conning and blindness is at the heart of Great World of Sound, and a broader political message is hinted at throughout. This is underscored with a consciously verite sensibility, an aesthetic that is one part reality television, one part hand-held documentary. And there's also an unusual trick tucked in. Nearly all the auditioning performers answered ads similar to those that Great Wall of Sound would place, and were filmed by hidden cameras in motel rooms. What you see is the real deal. But there are too many of these auditions (74 performers are credited), and it significantly stifles the film's pace.

Healy and Holliday bring refreshingly authentic performances, particularly Holliday, whose resume includes a long career as a revivalist minister. There's an overall poetic quality to Great World of Sound. It's a bleak poetry: the dark side of American Idol.
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