Date(s) - 13/11/2016
The Gate Cinema
A documentary about the best soul singer you’ve ever heard–even if you’ve never heard of him.
Syl Johnson possesses one of the greatest voices in soul music, but chances are many of you have never heard it. In his genre-spanning 60 year career, Syl’s music has remained largely unknown. But whilst Syl spent the 80’s following a path outside of music, unbeknownst to him one of his tracks was being given a new lease of life thanks to Hip Hop DJs and the sampling revolution. With electrifying concert footage, and featuring interviews with such Hip Hop luminaries as Wu Tang Clan’s RZA and Soulsonic Force’s Jazzy Jay, together with soul singer (and Syl’s daughter) Syleena Johnson and the late, great Otis Clay, this lively, energetic film shows how talent and perseverance can prevail in the end.
Winner, Best Documentary Feature Audience Award, Indie Memphis 2015.
Winner, Gibson Music Films / Music City Grand Jury Prize, Nashville Film Festival 2016.
Review of Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, by John DeFore (the Hollywood Reporter).
From ‘Soul Train’ to fried-fish sandwiches to the Wu-Tang Clan.
Blame Al Green. If not for the unstoppable sex appeal of Mr. Let’s Stay Together, Hi Records would have made singer Syl Johnson a star instead. Or so says he in Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows, Rob Hatch-Miller’s very enjoyable portrait of a singer who, though not quite obscure, wasn’t nearly as successful as he might have been. Soul fans will eat it up, and Johnson’s surprising hip-hop legacy will make the doc doubly attractive.
About that legacy, a lead the film is happy to bury in its second half: The opening seconds of Johnson’s 1967 cut Different Strokes, whose carnal grunt a layman might mistake for James Brown’s, became a fundamental scratch joint, a building block of hip-hop heard in tracks from Public Enemy to Jay Z and beyond. Several stars give Johnson props here, but none is as helpful as RZA, who fleshes out the narrative of how Johnson turned into a litigation machine once he realised how many artists were sampling him.
Hatch-Miller starts at the beginning, though, taking us to the Mississippi plantation Johnson’s grandfather bought from the family that once enslaved his forebears. Born Sylvester Thompson, the budding musician made his first guitar with baling wire and wood scraps; early in his teens he found his way to Chicago, where he would meet Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and be set on a musical career.
On Chicago’s Twinight label, he had a deserved if conventional-sounding hit in Come Sock it To Me, then created a more magnetic groove on the aching Is it Because I’m Black? But a Payola scandal scared him away from the label, into the arms of Willie Mitchell’s Memphis-based Hi Records.
Visiting Mitchell’s old studio, unchanged since the ’70s, the film talks to the late record producer’s daughters and to labelmate Otis Clay, getting a good feel for the Hi scene and Johnson’s place in it. But while he isn’t interviewed, Green’s shadow looms large over this section. Green co-wrote Johnson’s biggest hit, Take Me to the River, and we see how their interpretations differed in old TV performance footage.
Though he’s a good-spirited interviewee throughout, Johnson starts showing his aggrieved side here, complaining that Hi spent all their time and money making Green a star and neglected him unfairly. The singer’s wife and daughters supply other perspectives on his faltering career, but in Johnson’s telling, it soon becomes disco’s fault: Rather than adapt his style to the times, he quit, starting a small chain of seafood eateries and getting by until sampling gave him a way to make money from those old records.
But while Johnson was chasing down people to sue, a new generation discovered his music. The influential reissue label Numero Group devoted a giant box set to him in 2010, introducing him to hipsters and getting a ton of press. Hatch-Miller tags along to a spate of comeback shows whose very minor behind-the-scenes friction — the oft-wronged artist can’t trust even those who are rescuing his career, it seems — provide some chuckles in the film’s closing minutes.
Director: Robert Hatch-Miller
Producer(s): Puloma Basu, Robert Hatch-Miller
Main Cast: Syl Johnson, RZA
Duration: 85 minutes
Tickets: €10.00 / €8.00 Concession