According to Judge Bill Gibron, this 1970s obscurity about the music industry is as biting today as it was 30 years ago—maybe even more so.
There are two sides to every hit record.
Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel, Mean Streets) is a production savant. He can take the most mediocre musical act and, with enough studio polish and pizzazz, turn them into an overnight hit-parade sensation. Working with his protégés, a funk/rock combo known as The Group (Earth, Wind & Fire, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), he feels he's on the verge of a true sonic revolution. All of that changes, however, when A-Kord Records President Carlton James (Ed Nelson, Midway) signs the lame, mid-America family act The Pages. James forces Buckmaster to break ties with The Group and focus all his energies on making the trio—father Franklyn (Bert Parks, The Freshman) and offspring Gary (Jimmy Boyd, Inherit the Wind) and Velour (Cynthia Bostick)—into certified superstars. At first, Buckmaster refuses. He's an artist, and won't compromise his values for the sake of a novelty, but when he learns that the Mafia runs A-Kord and that a local mobster has his trigger-happy nephew, Mike Lemongello (Michael Dante, Willard) in charge, he quickly wises up. Within a few days, he is cranking out the hits for the hapless vocalists and falling in love with Velour's passion for fame. While he seems destined to be destroyed, Buckmaster continues to plot. Perhaps he can get everything he wants and avoid anything he doesn't. It may not be how things are done in the music business, but to the talented technician, That's the Way of the World.
A bit heavy-handed in its talent vs. business commentary and centering on a song so annoying it threatens to displace every other tune in the soundtrack of your life, That's the Way of the World is a totally typical slice of '70s sermonizing. With its agenda up front and ready to rumble, this legitimate lost gem represents Earth Wind & Fire's arrival as honest to goodness mainstream music superstars. Struggling up until this point, the band's appearance as the ubiquitous "The Group" and the Grammy-winning soundtrack that followed made the title track and "Shining Star" hit-parade gold. It didn't help the film, however. Even with the presence of then-known acting commodity Harvey Keitel, the movie's hard-sell stance and obvious symbolism were shunned by a post-peace and love generation. Instead of sticking it to the man like the film promised, blaxploitation producer (he was responsible for Superfly) Sig Shore's attempt at industry relevance died under a deluge of disinterest and disco. Sadly, everything the movie argued against came true, from the ties to the mob to the prepackaged pabulum forced onto fans. What seems preachy then is prophetic now; a clear case of forward thinking that missed the masses by a couple million album sales.
Granted, this is still a rather goofy film. The opening sequences where Keitel is fiddling the knobs during a Group session is expertly realized, while a middle-act montage of how a simple sound is overdubbed into a piece of populist ear candy is equally effective. However, in between is a lot of sloppy '70s slang, jive turkey takes on "bread" and "blow" that come across as nothing but dated in today's hep vernacular. In addition, it's odd to see Bert Parks at 61 (!) playing the role of fledging pop star. Sure, he is offered up as the "father" figure in the Pages group, but he still looks lost amongst all the polyester shirts and fabulously flared slacks. As for Earth, Wind & Fire, call the group's contribution a cameo. They appear sporadically throughout, but never long enough to do anything but confirm their amateurish acting chops. Maurice White, the band's founder and leader, appears to be ad-libbing anything he feels like, dragging Keitel around until the point of the scene is discovered and then secured. Add in the scenery-chewing chutzpah of Ed Nelson, former child star and recording artist Jimmy Boyd as the hard drinking, major drugging Page boy, and more wide lapels than in a Sarasota nursing home, and you've just signed up for a visit to throwback city.
What's surprising, though, is how refreshing and profound this movie really is. Buckmaster (not too obvious, huh?) may be the man with the "golden ear," but he needs to learn a few lessons before he makes it on his own. That the film follows his descent and eventual deception in order to get what he wants is one of the better elements present. Keitel is considered in his performance, never coming off as overly flashy or flamboyant. While he's not the most convincing high-powered producer ever presented onscreen, he appears to walk the walk and—mostly—talk the talk. There will be times when his laid-back demeanor makes you angry and resentful. His relationship with walking slut scumbag Velour is a clear case of such babe-based bile. Cynthia Bostick may nurse injured kittens back to health in her spare time, but she's so god-awful hateable as Velour that we just want to grab her groan-inducing ego and beat her senseless. She's the subtle villain in this allegory, the less than obvious enemy of Keitel's journey toward personal and professional ethics. Yet she's also just what the movie needs. Without her and the evil image-oriented music being pushed by A-Kord Records, That's the Way of the World would be a one-note wonder. With them, we get a near-Network for the recording biz.
Presented by BCI Eclipse Company in a fairly decent DVD package, That's the Way of the World looks pretty good for a relatively unknown cinematic rarity. Rumor has it that the film was actually owned by the syndicate, bought up and purposefully kept out of circulation to avoid the associations and connotations made within. That a print survived such a snooze with the fishes is amazing. Unfortunately, the remastering is a little substandard. There is significant ghosting and stuttering, especially during the exterior shots. The action just doesn't flow as effortlessly and smoothly as we expect. The rest of the image is good, with colors a tad muted and details easily decipherable. The major improvement, at least on the soundtrack side of things, is a brand new Dolby Digital 5.1 (standard and DTS) mix. While it doesn't help the dialogue much, it really opens up the musical performances. While the earworm aggravation of the Pages didn't need any more technical help to make us aurally insane, Earth, Wind & Fire definitely benefit from a full, richer decibel dynamic. Add in a trailer, some TV spots, a still/poster gallery, an eight-page booklet with liner notes and photos, and a rather routine commentary from EW&F members Verdine White and Ralph Johnson (genial, but loaded with dead air) and you've got a solid presentation of a particularly intriguing film.
In fact, That's the Way of the World may still be a little too ahead of it's time to play properly. With tween titans like Britney, Lindsay, and Hilary still puttering along and emo making its corporate punk pop inroads, we still live in an age of mass-produced music fostered by and formulated via disconnected committee. Now more than ever we need a movie that challenges the validity of art over artifice. Sadly, even with something as substantive as this exacting exposé we appear destined to dine on the sonic equivalent of dross. Money talks, while morals walk. It's the same now as it was 30 years before. Apparently, that is the "Way" of the world.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Earth, Wind and Fire Members Verdine White and Ralph Johnsons
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