Great World of Sound is a comedy about the music industry; the fact it's half-made of awkward silences is a big part of the joke. It's part High Fidelity, part Glengarry Glenn Ross -- the love of music and the war of business -- and also has a subtle, Southern sensibility to it, as well as hints of everything from The Music Man to Robert Altman's Nashville to Death of a Salesman to Christopher Guest's stumbling, stammering mock-umentaries. Directed by Craig Zobel -- and co-written by Zobel and George Smith -- Great World of Sound might be the best American independent comedy of recent memory -- funny and vital and tough. Watching Great World of Sound, I wasn't sure if things were going to get funnier or get uglier -- and that kind of uncertainty is a rare pleasure at the movies. There's comedy in Great World of Sound -- funny, laugh-out-loud stuff -- but it's also razor-sharp and real about how wonderful music is, and how ugly the music business (or any business) can be.
After years of scuffling around radio and music, Martin (Pat Healy) is now ... scuffling even more. Martin gets a job as a producer with Great World of Sound -- finding and signing acts so that Great World of Sound can help them produce songs which will be distributed to possible outlets -- all the signed acts have to do is make a 30% contribution to the total cost of the package of services. ... Martin hits the road with Clarence (Kene Holiday), and their mutual enthusiasm -- for being a given a chance to work, to achieve, to tell themselves that what they're doing matters -- is infectious, with all that phrase implies.
Great World of Sound is smart and funny -- perfectly pitched and made of perfectly-pitched moments big, and small. At heart, it's about the capacity for self-delusion -- telling yourself you can make it, telling yourself that you're going to be the person who makes the system pay -- and all the things that can, and will, happen when you're telling yourself the best kind of lies. Healey's performance is a solid, strong anchor -- we get a sense of who Martin is very fast, and we watch as his own understanding of himself shifts and changes with time on the road looking for acts for Great World of Sound. Healey has a great awkward-yet-likable presence, and he can not only manage dramatic moments but also deliver carefully-parsed comedy; Healey and Holiday's partnership -- part pals, part prickly problems -- gets to shine in scenes with the loose, swaying charm of the best improvisational acting.
And Great World of Sound is southern, too -- the South of Delta Blues and Ardent Studios, of Elvis and Gospel. Many of the aspiring singers who come to see Martin and Clarence aren't good -- many of them are horrible -- but some are, and those are the ones who break the hearts of Marin, Clarence -- and us. It's easy to sum up Great World of Sound glib and fast-- imagine a mix of Waiting for Guffman and Glenngarry Glenn Ross, shot like a great episode of The Office. It's much, much harder to try to truly convey the human-scale excellence and clear brilliance in every frame of this film. I can already hear it calling me back for repeat viewings -- to catch that quiet moment, that funny glance, lightning-fast and lightning-strong instances of character and real emotion that make Great World of Sound more than just a shallow comedy or a self-important expose. Great World of Sound isn't just a great story; it's a great reminder of how funny, personal and amazing independent cinema can be.