Syl Johnson: Any way the wind blows Dir. Rob Hatch-Miller

[East Village Entertainment; 2016]

Styles: music documentary
Others: Beware of Mr. Baker, Miss Sharon Jones!, Shaolin Soul

Fathom the paradox: Some of the most sampled artists of all time have spent decades away from the music business, their work so rarely acknowledged that it can’t even qualify as a historical footnote. While this description fits many musicians from the recent past, just a handful of them have reached the notoriety of Syl Johnson, whose return to the spotlight after a decade or so in the wilderness has more to do with an aggressive stance towards those who “steal” from him — leading to countless high-profile suits — than to a longtime-coming artistic resurgence. The octogenarian soul singer is the subject of Rob Hatch-Miller’s documentary Any way the wind blows, where we get a chance to look at Johnson’s often puzzling persona; the film paying equal attention to his music and eventful life away from the stage. Indeed, not only have Johnson’s tracks been sampled by a couple of generations of hip hop artists, but the Chicago-based singer cut his teeth with blues legends Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, turned down a contract that would instead make Al Green an icon, been nominated to a Grammy alongside Elvis Presley and Paul McCartney, made a living as a truck driver when he got his first number one hit, sued Michael Jackson and nearly all the big music labels, escaped Jim-Crow Mississippi by selling cotton he stole from a plantation, created a fried fish restaurant franchise while taking a break from musical activity in the 1980s… More than enough to push this project forward, not to mention the crabby Johnson himself, happy to cut his opinions loose whenever the camera is on him.

Hatch-Miller does his best to capture his subject’s intriguing personality, letting him tell his own story and keeping any directorial pretension or real inquisitive intent well away from the film. What we thus get is a straightforward retelling of Johnson’s life, from his roots in rural Mississippi to his current reappraisal. This is not an investigation on fame and unpaid dues, nor the story of an unsung artist’s comeback, not even a survey of Johnson’s considerable influence on hip hop. Instead, Any way the wind blows is an entertaining if superficial mixture of bits and pieces of all those narratives. It shares such ambivalence with Johnson, who is neither that obscure yet hardly qualifies as celebrated, who insists he does not care for recognition unless it involves money yet is happy to let a documentary crew into his home, who has been sampled by thousands of artists going all the way from DJ Jazzy Jeff to Kendrick Lamar yet the only famous talking head willing to show up for the film is the RZA. While the effect of such contradictions could explain the fate of Johnson’s career, in regards to Hatch-Miller’s documentary they cause its 80-minute runtime to feel quite padded-out, with the film somewhat losing its plot by the time the retrospective reaches the present — which happens around the 40-minute mark. The same goes for a couple of animated sections recreating milestones in Johnson’s life, which could be excised with little or no pain, for they break the film’s otherwise simple but cohesive style.

Predictably, Any Way the Wind Blows is as strong as Johnson is engaged in the time period he is looking back at. For instance, the whole of Johnson’s 1970s and 1980s recorded work is ignored as the giddiness of his early-years’ dissipates, giving way to a very one-sided rivalry the singer insists he had with Al Green. The final third of the film, devoted to Johnson’s Numero Group-orchestrated reissue campaign (actually also the genesis for this documentary), finds the soulman coasting through his newfound admiration without much visible emotion. He offhandedly voices his surprise for how his once “100% black” audience is now 100% white and in the 18 to 35 age group, and gets angry when his name is not mentioned when his reissued records come up in the ‘Historical Album’ Grammy category, but apart from that Johnson does not appear too invested in the idea of a comeback. There is the strange spectacle of an 80-year-old man, whose voice is not what it used to, singing “Is it because I’m black” backed by a bunch of very pale-looking young men, but neither Johnson nor the director make much of it. The same could be said about Johnson’s family life, which we are made to understand was not perfect, though both his daughters and ex wife show up to warmly comment on the musician and his quirks. Moreover, for all the talk of financial wrongdoing against him, there are no signals of Johnson ever going through hardship, despite having to lead the modest life of a working-class man and not that of a soul superstar. One feels probing into these areas could lead to a more robust portrayal of the singer.

The meatiest part of the documentary, and this should come as no surprise, is the one focused on Johnson’s tireless crusade against sampling. He despises the practice so much he won’t even call it “sampling”, but the theft of his style and work — which he insists would rather let fall into oblivion instead of being pilfered by others. Sure, Johnson has reasons to be bitter and feel cheated out of the industry, though one would expect age and checks to have mellowed him out a bit. On the contrary, the man who once paid a couple hundred bucks to whoever found uncleared samples of his music for him to litigate on, keeps on maintaining strict control over his legacy. Or so we infer from his still recent suit against Kanye West and the angry way he expels the film crew from his garden in the documentary’s closing moments. Any Way the Wind Blows will hardly win Johnson any new fans, both because of the musician’s demeanor as well as the significant flaws the film has; though it might help the still aggrieved singer pay for a new hand of paint for what he proudly calls “the house Wu-Tang’s money built”, and for all we know that would certainly please this most peculiar man.

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