Great World of Sound portrays America as fragile and fractured, held together by flimsy notions of patriotism, celebrity, and can-do capitalism.
Martin (Pat Healy) looks perpetually terrified. With his hair cut short and his mouth an uncertain wriggle, he resembles a grown-up Charlie Brown, stunted from a lifetime of faked-out footballs. He lives in Charlotte, drives a gray-paint-flecked sedan. His interests are dictated by a succession of girlfriends: playing guitar, writing, arts and crafts, Pilates. During a job interview, Martin's prospective employer, Great World of Sound co-owner Layton (Robert Longstreet), asks, "Constant motion is just the new laziness. Is that you Martin? Are you lazy?" Martin answers, "I'm self-deprecating. All you've got to do is watch."
Martin would be insufferable if it weren't for his irony and vulnerability. Both are on display at his new job: as a "producer" or salesman for the Great World of Sound, he and Clarence (Kene Holliday) are unwitting participants in a song sharking scam, auditioning aspiring musicians who have to make a down-payment as part of a bogus record contract.
Though apparently focused on this obscure scam, Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound also updates familiar themes, like the tragic intersection of capitalism, hucksterism, and the American dream. Layton and his partner Shank (John Baker) operate out of the beaten-up regions of the Southeast from Birmingham to Louisville. They take advantage of their employees' disenfranchisement, giving them a false sense of empowerment so that they overlook the shadier dilemmas that arise over the course of their work. Martin, shy and rudderless, is offered direction and the chance to "make a difference" for the musicians. Clarence, a gregarious and poor black man in a burnt orange suit, sees an opportunity to fulfill his thwarted ambition. The company gives him a cell phone and he calls Martin. "It makes me look like a producer. I'm standing in a parking lot and I'm making this happen."
Martin and Clarence are sent out on the road, auditioning new musicians in motel rooms, honing their sales pitch. Martin's apparent sincerity brings them in and Clarence closes the deal. Pretending his cell phone has a camera, he takes the musician's pictures as part of the signing ceremony, reasoning, "Just because it's a lie doesn't mean it is not a good idea."
The audition scenes use a mixture of actors and actual local musicians -- ranging from inspirational Christian balladeers and bar buskers to rappers, folk singers, sludgy metalheads, and gimmicky indie rockers -- mostly shot undercover on a set with two-way mirrors. Holliday and Healy interviewed them in character and Zobel briefed the musicians on the filming afterwards. Though this approach treads a fine ethical line, the result highlights the poignancy of artistic performance set against the craven sales presentations staged by Layton and Shank. The pacing, dictated by the flow of improvised and reality-based scenes, approximates the stilted quality of shaky deal-making. Zobel hovers over the confused crosstalk, the mumbles, and false starts. Though almost all the characters are perpetually interviewing for or being sold on something, none of them is very good at it. (Elsewhere, the visual style suffers from the straightforward simplicity and obvious compositions of a first feature.)
Though enthusiastic about their work, Martin and Clarence are largely indifferent to the quality of the music, until Martin is struck by a 14-year-old girl named Kendra. Her song, called "The New National Anthem," works as a corrective to mindless boosterism: "Some folks they die for songs, that's how they know they belong," she sings. Martin offers to pay half of her upfront fee, telling her father, "I think your daughter might have really tapped into something. I think it's actually honest about ourselves. The timing is perfect, it's very viable."
Martin's own discovery that the song won't be recorded or distributed in any serious way predictably coincides with his realization that the Great World of Sound is a false front. That it takes Clarence and Martin so long to figure this out is a major fault of the story, but when they do, the simmering racial and class tensions between them are breached. Clarence erupts: "Fuck fair," he yells, "I lived on the streets of Houston for three goddamn years... Fairness runs real thin real quick out there on the streets... There ain't no fair, there ain't no dessert, there is earn and there is take, motherfucker... You want to be fair to someone, you be fair to me... Be fair to the people that you is around." If it's no surprise that milquetoast Martin has been duped, Clarence's distress is unnerving. It shows how powerful and malevolent a grind their world can be.
Great World of Sound here recalls Death of a Salesmen and Glengarry Glen Ross. But if those earlier salesmen hope to "make it," now the divide between rich and poor is so great we don't even see anybody who could be considered financially "successful." Layton brags about having $13,000 in his checking account. He inhabits a landscape of wood-paneled bars, 99¢ stores, and hastily assembled office parks. Clarence proposes that the best survival technique is to "Be fair to the people that you is around," and this is the best imperfect resolution Zobel can offer.
Like Kendra's national anthem, Zobel's film portrays America as fragile and fractured, held together by flimsy notions of patriotism, celebrity, and can-do capitalism. Martin's coworkers grumble about Kendra's anti-war lyrics. When one of the producers accuses Layton and Shank of being dishonest, he is immediately shot down as being a "little whiny girl." The average worker is in an impossible situation, stuck within a rigged system and accused of having a "bad attitude" if he complains or tries to fix it. The characters try desperately to belong to a community they really want no part of, acting as both victims and perpetrators.
The outlook is extraordinarily bleak. It closes with Martin wallowing in self-pity, his pissed-off girlfriend hovering in the background. The harsh close-ups don't resolve for you whether Martin is a victim of "society" or himself. Whatever the case, Great World of Sound makes clear that it's pointless trying to pin your hopes on a song.