Coleman Buckmaster (Harvey Keitel) is a hotshot record producer with the A-Chord company, and his main interest at the moment is an up-and-coming band known as The Group (Earth Wind & Fire), who are generating sounds that inspire him to fresh heights of creativity. But it's not all good, as he is called into the office of his boss to hear that he is being ordered to work his magic on a new family band called The Pages, and judging by their demo they bring new meaning to the word "mediocre". However, the Mafia are applying pressure to make them a hit, and Buck has little choice...
That's the Way of the World is best known as a hit album by Earth Wind & Fire, but there was a film attached to it as well, although it was nowhere near the success the music was. Some of the better moments in this are simply hearing the band play, whether recording lush sounds in the studio or their storming live concert performances, so we're in no doubt that for the purposes of the movie they are extremely talented and by far the best option for Buck to stick with if he wants to be fulfilled artistically. Not something you can say about The Pages, who are not only deliberately bland, but not great people either.
Yet Buck is being manoeuvred into a corner by his superiors, and the film works up more impressive scenes when we are privy to the manner in which he sets about polishing the turd of a song that the Mafia hope to be a major success in the charts. This sound was actually created by EW&F leader Maurice White, and adds to the convincing nature of Buck's flair for the industry: the end result is a big improvement on the laughable demo, although we can still perceive that it's nowhere near the quality of The Group's material. Even more complications ensue when the female member of The Pages, Velour (Cynthia Bostock, excellent in her only film), selfishly takes a shine to Buck.
He begins to feel the pressure as not only does he have to turn down The Group for completing more of their album, but must put up with Velour's advances and his professional integrity being severely compromised. But it seems after a while that the her forcefulness is doing its trick, and she becomes the main woman in his life, not that his girlfriend is too pleased about that. None of the family band are wholesome as we learn that dad Franklyn (Miss America host and stage musical star Bert Parks) is actually Velour's abusive stepfather, and brother Gary (Jimmy Boyd) is concealing a heroin habit, and to top it off they're pretty obnoxious as people as well, a fact Buck appears to be turning a blind eye to.
The script was written by music journalist Robert Lipsyte, and he knew of what he spoke, as for many this was an all-too-accurate rendition of what happened in the American music business of the seventies. All that integrity going out the window for true pioneers as long as the money men get their profits, and some decidedly unlovely backstory to the major players; even Buck, who is meant to be the good guy, is so enraged by his position that he shouts down a young hopeful who approaches him as he goes to his car, something he has the decency to regret shortly after. But he is the smartest guy in this film, so while White's character calls him a "jive turkey" at one point, he does know what he's doing as he negotiates his way through the sleaze (famed DJ Murray the 'K' shows up as a lecherous broadcaster, for example). The twist at the end is surprisingly effective for a pay-off, and rather than leaving you disillusioned, you're left optimistic in spite of what you've seen.