Writer-director Craig Zobel blends conventional narrative storytelling with elements of documentary filmmaking and TV talent shows like Star Search, Stairway to the Stars and American Idol, producing a fascinating new genre hybrid and making one the most impressive and promising feature debuts since Richard Linklater's SLACKER.
Tired of bouncing around the small AM radio markets of the American South, milquetoast Martin (Pat Healy) is ready to settle down with his artist girlfriend Pam (Rebecca Mader), and he's hoping his new job with an outfit called Great World of Sound is the key to a bright new future in the world of independent record production. GWS has just moved to Martin's town in hopes of tapping the great wealth of homegrown talent just waiting to be discovered. It'll be Martin's job to first audition all the up-and-coming acts that answer the company's classified ads, then convince them to show their commitment to their own futures by forking over a portion of the recording and distribution fees. Martin is partnered with gregarious, natural-born huckster Clarence (Kene Holliday, of TV's Matlock), and they're soon on the road to some of the poorest cities in the South. With their motel rooms doubling as audition spaces, Martin and Clarence move from town to town meeting an endless string of hopefuls. Even though Martin can't understand why they're expected to sign everyone, even the least talented, he and Clarence are soon hailed at GWS headquarters as the hot new producing team. In Birmingham, they audition a young girl named Kyndra Kent (Mahari Conston) who, in a soft and shaky voice, sings a strange and haunting self-penned song she calls "The New National Anthem." Martin is so bewitched by her lyrics about catamarans and terrapins that he offers to put up his own money for the good-faith down payment Kyndra's father (Willie J. Stratford Jr.) can't afford — even though he's begun to suspect that GWS is little more than a "song sharking" operation that mercilessly preys on the most vulnerable of dreamers.
Zobel bows before the classic Maysles brothers documentary SALESMAN (1969), but there's nothing remotely derivative about the film he crafted with cowriter George Smith. The mild-looking Healy is perfectly cast, Holliday — an actor and revival minister who knows how to sell a bill of goods — is simply brilliant, and their largely improvised scenes together crackle. For the audition scenes, meanwhile, Zobel attracted talent by placing ads in the local newspapers and filming their performances with concealed cameras in offices decked out like motel rooms. (Unlike the men of GWS, Zobel was extremely conscientious about clueing the participants into the real nature of the project immediately afterwards to avoid any exploitation of the unwilling.) The result is a beguiling and often poignant pageant of outsider musicians, but the broken heart of this extraordinary film comes directly from Zobel's own personal experience: His father was a bogus record producer who worked for a company exactly like GWS. Knowing this, Zobel's depiction of the slow corrosion of a good man's soul is only that much more shattering. leave a comment --Ken Fox