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Money for nothing

`Great World of Sound' sounds a cautionary note as it tries to fleece wannabe recording artists.

January 25, 2007|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

Park City, Utah — THE classified ads began surfacing 18 months ago in newspapers like the Penny Saver in Charlotte, N.C., and Creative Loafing in Atlanta -- a lo-fi star search calling all would-be American idols:

Want a hit record/ be a star?

GWS Recording holding open auditions

Charlotte, Early June. Need original songs/artists

Experience Unnecessary, just good songs.

That was enough to lure 65 aspirants of all stripes to a run-down section of Charlotte, where they queued outside an office located in a back alley for their grab at fame. Among them: gangsta rappers, freak folk singers, heavy metal bands, theremin players, gospel choir members and shoegazing balladeers. Once inside, their performances were filmed "Candid Camera"-style with hidden cameras behind two-way mirrors.

It wasn't the typical approach to casting supporting characters in an independent film -- even one shot on a shoestring budget by a novice writer-director who earned his professional bona fides working low-level jobs in reality TV. But then, Craig Zobel's "Great World of Sound" is an atypical indie even by standards of the Sundance Film Festival, where it won acceptance late last year and premiered here Saturday to enthusiastic applause.

The movie combines elements of cinema verite, unscripted drama, guerrilla filming and conventional narrative to examine the lengths people will go to attain fame -- as well as the methods of those who would prey upon such aspirations.

"The American dream used to be about providing a better way of life for your kids: college, maybe passing on a piece of land," Zobel said. "But there's been a value shift. Now the dream is to be famous, to be on TV and legitimize something about themselves. It's fascinating and saddening."

The film's action follows rootless thirtysomething Martin and a fast-talking, middle-aged Clarence (actors Pat Healy and Kene Holliday), newly hired as "record producers" at a start-up record label, Great World of Sound. Their mission, as articulated by their blowhard boss, is to "scout and discover new musicians and help them to record their music" -- but more important, to collect $3,000 from each wannabe with the premise of covering studio and production costs.

ZOBEL, who co-wrote the script with George Smith, drew inspiration for "Great World of Sound" from his family history.

In the mid-'70s, Zobel said, his father made ends meet as a phony record producer, grifting aspiring singers in a similar pay-to-record scam.

But it was the younger Zobel's dues-paying period after graduating from the North Carolina School of the Arts film school (also the alma mater of writer-director David Gordon Green, who served as a producer on "Sound") that laid the groundwork for his movie.

Working as a freelance production coordinator on television commercials and as a props person on reality TV shows including "The Apprentice," Zobel became intimately acquainted with the "fame or bust" mind-set.

"I thought, 'Wow, people are really comfortable putting themselves in a situation where they're not shown in a good light,' " Zobel, 30, recalled.

Finally, after applying for a production manager job on the MTV reality show "Room Raiders" -- a teenage dating game in which contestants rummage through one another's closets and underwear drawers in an effort to make a love connection -- he found his muse.

"It was a breaking point in my mind," Zobel said. "I thought, 'I have to make a film about this stuff.' "

Principal photography was completed over four weeks, carved into two sections. The "reality" part of the shoot lasted two weeks, made up of the surreptitiously filmed auditions. ("I sat the cinematographer and production designer down and told them I didn't want this to feel like an episode of 'Punk'd' where the camera is behind a plant or something," Zobel said.)

Although each musician was asked to sign a waiver allowing the filmmakers to use their likenesses on-screen, most remained oblivious of the cameras lurking behind the room's two-way mirrors.

Everyone was asked to perform an original song, immediately after which Healy and Holliday would go into the hard sell, asking for $3,000 toward production costs as a "show of good faith."

Roger Carron, 37, a Charlotte-based telecommunications worker with a sideline as a singer-songwriter, was one of those who responded to the classified ad and auditions in the film. He recalled the precise moment his suspicions turned into doubt: when his trial performance turned into a negotiation.

"I'm thinking, 'I'm not gonna give up my money,' " he said. "Then they tried to bargain me down to $800. I was thinking, 'This does not seem right.' "

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