If I chose to write a review of That’s the Way of the World the length of which accurately reflected the duration of its star attraction Earth, Wind & Fire, I should have stopped writing two clauses ago. The film is finally getting a home video release after spending over three decades in obscurity. It’s “the lost feature film,” as the promotional materials trumpet—or fugelhorn. Turns out that not only was the film lost, but, likewise, the band’s participation in the film itself is MIA. If anyone has any reason to celebrate the return of That’s the Way of the World it’s milquetoast Harvey Keitel fans looking for those elusive titles in his filmography that don’t involve spurting fluids. I am not one of them, and neither are most people that have any reason to be excited by this DVD release.
Those expecting to see more than a glimpse of EW&F’s infamously ornate mid-’70s staqe show in all its sequin-spangled glory will probably end up losing patience as Keitel, as a hot-shot record producer, spends all his studio time molding a talentless faux-family trio’s lead-off single into an MOR FM delight. Sure, he spends all his time trying to convince the conniving, Mafioso record execs that The Group (EW&F’s filmic moniker) has talent and substance. But then he turns around and cuts short what would be their only significant dramatic scene less than one minute in. “If you don’t want to discuss this civilly, I think we should cancel this meeting.” In an attempt to tip the scales back toward their rightful place, I choose to use the remainder of this review to annotate the soundtrack album, which rightfully sailed to the top of the pop charts while the film it intended to complement even more rightfully sunk (as though true love wasn’t written in the stone).
“Shining Star”: On the soundtrack, it kicks ass, takes names, and performs a mass baptismal all in the space of two minutes and 50 seconds. The verse pounds on the bassline’s one until the chorus unfurls a tangy, James Brown-recalling guitar progression. The wall of vocals gets tighter and tighter until, at the very end of the song, they’re right up next to the speakers. In the film, a radio DJ (non-payola) plays the song before it’s even finished, surprising Keitel while he’s driving around L.A. Director Sig Shore naturally cuts to a different scene about 20 seconds into the song.
“That’s the Way of the World”: The EW&F “National Anthem,” a luscious, billowing ballad so powerful that it even showed up on David Mancuso’s list of the 100 most beloved spins at The Loft dance club. Layers of rich orchestration and soaring falsetto characterize this quintessential slow funk jam, the kind that the Ohio Players were always trying to emulate but were rarely able to without collapsing. It’s at least a relief that this is one of the two songs that gets a relatively complete performance in the film, albeit in chopped up and reorganized form. Hey, Sig’s gotta run the opening credits over something, right?
“Happy Feeling”: Not much more than a double-time, feel-good vamp, it’s probably the least adventurous composition on the album, which makes it perfect for the big roller-skating sequence! Make that the endless roller-skating sequence, which means this is the other of the two songs that gets near-complete performances in the film. Actually, this song shows up twice, reprising at the film’s end when Keitel stands on the side of the stage at their massive stadium performance, savoring the fruits of his double-crossing, blackmailing solution to his Pages/Group dilemma. Somehow I don’t think Sig quite latched onto the sort of “happy feeling” EW&F were known—and openly derided—for peddling. I guess I should be glad that he at least remembered to train one camera on Larry Dunn’s levitating piano.
“All About Love”: Maurice turns an admittedly goofy boudoir humper into an erotically-detached “Free to Be You and Me” sermonette. Sig hears the borrowed Barry White orchestrations and throws the track on top of Keitel’s waterbed as he plunges wedding-band-deep into his corrupt plan to come out on top by kissing the bottom.
“Yearnin’ Learnin’”: With the barreling piano chords and timing on the high-hat, it’s the one song on the album that sounds most like the sort of soundtrack Sig is used to, which means pieces of it show up everywhere. Actually, it usually ends up getting boiled down to that one “hit me once” horn sting, which caps off scenes that don’t deserve the punctuation (i.e. record execs talk shop on the golf course, nod goodbye to each other, POW!!!). I’ll admit this was my secret favorite song growing up with this album, and it still is. It disturbs me how blithely it was turned into incidental music.
“Reasons”: The album’s great, misunderstood track: it’s so sentimental it almost sounds like Mike Brady singing “Send in the Clowns,” but its lyrics actually reveal a pretty stony core. It’s about how quickly love disappears after orgasm; the band later couched it in more abstractly romantic terms in their all-time prom hit “After the Love Has Gone.” Sig uses it for a vapid, catty music industry party. What?! That’s the Way of the World could’ve been significantly improved if he’d switched around his strategies for using this song and “Yearnin’ Learnin’.”
“Africano”: An electrifying instrumental number that really shows off the band’s percussive backbone. Not used at all in the film that I could tell, though there is one shot at the top of the film showing Maurice White tuning his kalimba.
“See the Light”: A really weird suite (it begins in 7/8 time), this song sounds like what I imagine was running through prissy trio member Gary Page’s head as he started snorting coke and shooting heroin in the backstage dressing room. It’s 1970s Kinney’s Shoes Muzak on an acid trip. Obviously, it’s my other secret favorite on the album and, again obviously, it doesn’t really show up in the film at all except in the far background. Which makes it a useful metaphor for Earth, Wind & Fire’s role in their own goddamned movie.