51st Chicago International Film Festival Screening #3: “Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows” (U.S.)

“Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows” (U.S.)
Directed by Robert Hatch-Miller

SylJohnsonAnyWayTheWindBlows-PBefore you say “why would I want to see a documentary about some R’n’B singer I’ve never heard of,” let me assure you that you’ve actually HEARD him, thousands of times. HIs song, “Different Strokes”, recorded in 1968, has been sampled on well over 200 recordings, most notably by Wu-Tang, Public Enemy, and Kanye (I always thought the sampled piece belonged to James Brown). As a result, he’s responsible, more than perhaps any other, for making it mandatory to pay artists for their sampled work.

But that’s not why you see this doc. You go because the man himself is hilarious, and cantankerous, and complex, and pissed off – a bit of a musical mad genius. Like many of the “lost artist re-found” docs that have been created lately (“Searching For Sugarman”, “Twenty Feet From Stardom”, “The Wrecking Crew”, etc.), there are pros and cons to the actual film-craft. This one is extremely well-paced, VERY educational, connects emotionally, and the music is incredible. The sole drawback is that the director places himself in the film from time to time. I’m sure part of that decision is based on Johnson’s style of answering questions…confrontational…so it must’ve been difficult to find edit points that worked. But, he might have tried harder. Very few docs can get away with this. in fact, the only one I’ve ever seen successfully place the director in the film was ‘Red Army.” But this is a VERY minor problem and should, in no way, keep you from seeking this film out.

Speaking of which, it has another screening at the Chicago Film Festival this Saturday, the 24th, at 1pm. Then it plays in NYC at DOC NYC on November 15th & 18th. GO!

Written 10/20/2015

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