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 at fests.
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 realized how many artists were sampling him.
<p>A chapter in Soul history boasting an unexpected comeback.</p>
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 cowrote Johnson’s biggest hit, “Take Me to the River,” and we see how their interpretations differed in old TV performance footage. (Somewhat confusingly, author Jonathan Lethem drops in at this point to add his two cents.)
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.
Production company: Production Company
Director: Rob Hatch-Miller
Producers: Rob Hatch-Miller, Puloma Basu, Michael Slaboch, Joaquin Perez
Executive producers: Diana Holtzberg, Tom Scharpling
Editor: Joaquin Perez
Music: Yo La Tengo
Sales: Diana Holtzerg, East Village Entertainment
No rating, 83 minutes