When the main character of a film or play is a salesman, he’s never just a salesman. Whether it’s Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary Salesman,or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, the men in this profession serve as a sort of national economic indicator, a window into the difficulties facing all working- class Americans trapped in permanently mediocre occupations. Dashed dreams, unhappy home lives, a pervasively paranoid sense that they’re losing their edge to some up-and-comer—we pity them, yet we see our own daily grinds embodied in their fruitless struggles.
Although not nearly as epochal, director and co-writer Craig Zobel’s Great World of Sound is a fitting 21st-century addition to the genre. The film’s meager plotting and casual melancholy peg it as a modest indie, but these ingredients dovetail nicely with Zobel’s bigger theme about the futility of the modern world.
Unemployed and living with his artist girlfriend Pam (Rebecca Mader) in Charlotte, North Carolina, Martin (Pat Healy) interviews with Great World of Sound, a local fly-by-night record company that hires him as a producer. Never mind that Martin has no record- making experience—as he soon learns, he and his African-American partner Clarence (Kene Holliday) will mostly be traveling around the South bilking any guitar-slinging sucker for a few thousand dollars in exchange for some empty promises about a label deal that will never materialize. Clarence is too grateful not to be living on the street anymore to let the ethical complications of fleecing get to him, but rudderless Martin secretly envies these young performers’ optimism, telling himself that if he can actually help one or two of them reach their dreams, maybe the whole situation isn’t as rotten as it appears.
Zobel’s directorial debut is as bleak a look at working as Miller’s or Mamet’s earlier efforts, but what’s most striking about this bittersweet drama is its absence of indignant rage. Instead, a weary inevitability hovers around the edges of the frame as Zobel and his co-writer, George Smith, construct the film as a series of concentric parasitic circles: the performers being taken by the producers, who are being taken by their sleazy bosses. Set far away from our nation’s cultural centers—the characters consider Indianapolis the big time—Great World of Sound creates a milieu in which everyone, no matter how high or low on the totem pole, is stranded on the same depressed economic plateau. Unlike other low-budget American indies, there are no homespun homilies about “regular folks” to be found, because lower-class desperation has sufficiently sucked the regular folk dry of such niceties. What’s left in its place is a resigned sense of exhaustion, and Zobel fills the film with images of diminished prospects: cheap beer, old-model cell phones, cookie-cutter motel rooms, and anxious musicians who want a record contract just so they can quit their restaurant job.
Considering that the film’s narrative arc is as predetermined as its luckless characters’ fates, Zobel makes most of his points through his understated atmosphere of silent misery, which extends to the low-key performances. Wielding his boisterous demeanor as a defense mechanism, Holliday’s Clarence in particular conveys the movie’s pessimistic outlook on life as a succession of unappealing choices undertaken with a mixture of willful naïveté and callous calculation. As a counterpoint, Healy’s Martin becomes a doomed figure whose still-flickering conscience is matched with a spinelessness that leaves him complicit in the company’s deceit.
As smart as it is at dissecting the culture of lowered expectations, Great World of Sound fizzles when satirizing our fascination with instant celebrity, shown here through the real-life auditions conducted by Healy and Holliday (in character) with unsuspecting musicians who responded to phony newspaper ads looking for unsigned acts. While Zobel doesn’t resort to reality TV’s humiliation tactics, these nonfiction digressions make their point rather obviously: Everybody’s got a dream, but very few will see it come to fruition.
Great World of Sound is far stronger when it doesn’t place us in a superior position to anyone on the screen, when it forces us instead to identify with the film’s multitudes of walking wounded. In the past, cinematic salesmen have served as harsh indictments of the dark undercurrents at the heart of the American Dream, but Zobel’s very sad first feature suggests that, at least at one time, we all actually had a dream to believe in.