Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel) is a record producer who is known as the “Golden Ear,” because of his success at discovering new talent. Coleman is the son of a jazz pianist (to whom he brings a birthday present of cocaine) and he is convinced that consumers are not as dumb as music execs assume that they are. He believes that his latest group, known simply as The Group (but played by Earth, Wind, & Fire), have what it takes to become a big success despite not having a conventionally commercial image.
Coleman’s boss, Carlton James (Ed Nelson), disagrees. Carlton orders Coleman to spend less time working with The Group and to instead devote his energy to producing a single for a new band called The Pages. Led by Franklyn Page (Bert Parks), the Pages present themselves as being a clean-cut and wholesome family band. Carlton is sure that their innocuous style and feel-good harmonies are going to be “the sound of the 70s.” Coleman disagrees but he tries to balance working with both groups. While he tries to make The Group into a success, he also tries to find something worthwhile in The Pages’ new single, “Joy Joy Joy.” Complicating matters is that, against his better instincts, Coleman has fallen into a relationship with Velour Page (Cynthia Bostick), who is not as innocent as the band’s image makers makes her out to be.
Written by journalist Robert Lipsyte and directed by producer Sig Shore (he did Superfly), That’s The Way Of The World is an interesting look at what was going on behind the scenes of the music industry in the 70s. It’s not the first film to suggest that the recording industry was run by unethical and corrupt record labels (nor would it be the last) but it feels authentic in a way that a lot of other music industry films don’t. That’s The Way Of The World emphasizes just how manufactured most popular music is. Insisting on trying to do something different, as the Group does, will only lead to you being snubbed by the industry. Play ball and record music that means nothing — like the Pages — and you’ll become a star overnight. Having a hit has less to do with the work you put into it and more with how many people your label is willing to pay off. As one exec puts it, getting your record played on the radio (in those days before YouTube and Soundcloud) means resorting “payola, layola, and drugola.” Harvey Keitel performs his role with his trademark intensity and Bert Parks is brilliantly cast as the thoroughly fake Franklyn Page.
Today, The Way Of The World is best-known for its soundtrack, which was also one of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s best-selling albums. Though the film was a bomb at the box office, the album was not. The Group may have struggled to get anyone to listen but Earth, Wind, and Fire became the first black group to top both the Billboard album and singles charts.