A behind-the-scenes story about the music business starring Harvey Keitel as a principled record producer, That’s the Way of the World isn’t a great film by any measure, but it vividly evokes a specific era, and it addresses meaningful themes related to the eternal conflict between art and commerce. Plus, the movie’s got great jams courtesy of R&B group Earth, Wind & Fire, the members of which portray an ersatz act called the Group—EWF lays down smooth grooves including “Reasons,” “Shining Star,” and “That’s the Way of the World.” Keitel plays Coleman Buckmaster (one of the best character names ever, just sayin’), a successful producer known for creating imaginative arrangements. When we meet Coleman, he’s deep into sessions with the Group, a black ensemble making densely atmospheric tracks. Coleman considers the Group artistically important, but his backers don’t dig the sound. Execs order Coleman to set the Group aside and work on a single by an all-white vocal group called the Pages, whose style is so square they make the Carpenters seem hip by comparison. (In a great flourish, the leader of the Pages is played by Bert Parks, who spent years serenading Miss America during televised beauty contests.) Coleman agrees to cut the vocal act’s record, planning to get the job done quickly so he can return to the Group, but things get complicated when Coleman starts romancing Pages singer Velour (Cynthia Bostick).
Although this set-up has plenty of dramatic potential, writer Robert Lipsyte and director/producer Sig Shore devote more energy to capturing details than to generating narrative momentum. As such, there’s lots of great stuff depicting the flow of recording sessions and the unethical practices of the record business. In one memorable scene, an executive says it takes “payola, layola, viola, and drugola” to get a song on the radio; elsewhere, Coleman speaks for artists throughout history by asking an anxious financier, “Do you want it good or do you want it now?” Shore, who produced the Superfly movies, doesn’t break any new ground with this, his directorial debut—his work falls somewhere between perfunctory and underwhelming. As for Keitel, among the most quixotic actors in Hollywood history, he delivers one of his patented non-performances. He’s mildly charming in some moments and fiery in a few others, but mostly he’s so internalized that many nuances fail to register. Still, these are relatively minor complaints given how interesting That’s the Way of the World is from start to finish. Sure, there’s a kitsch factor (Keitel roller-skates!), but the picture is hard to beat as a travelogue through a world seldom seen by outside eyes.
That’s the Way of the World: GROOVY