There’s a big trend of artists from the ’70s being rediscovered by the dorky crowd inhabiting Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Some of these artists could not get the lucky break they needed in past decades. Others had decent careers but were perhaps causalities of a crowded industry. Many discovered that their music ends up in the hands of a new generation, and stage a comeback. In the case of Syl Johnson, all of this probably holds true, but there’s even to the story.
The new film, Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows offers a personal and musical look at the different acts in his life. Starting with his Mississippi beginnings, where he learned how to make his own guitar, to him hitting the road again with a recent tour, the viewer gets a good sense of Syl’s life and its many twists and turns. He believed he was largely overshadowed by fellow label artist Al Green, and eventually by the disco period, Syl decided to hang it up. The film does a good job of adding insight from other angles, fleshing out his story beyond a simple music documentary narrative.
His daughter Syleena appears in the film along with other family members, and they help with adding insight to the inner workings of Syl. His character and personality is on display here, showing honesty about his ups and downs. Fellow label mates and people from Syl’s era spill the beans about Hi Records, and viewers get to witness how fellow artists are sometimes juggled around on the same label. Even a few hip-hop icons describe their love of his music, with Wu-Tang member RZA providing the best details about Syl’s tense relationship with hip-hop.
The second act of Syl’s career kicks in with the sampling craze around his works, introducing several new generations to his music. However, Syl sees lost opportunity from the unauthorized use of his library and starts chasing down rappers through his lawyer. It illustrates a shift in the way Black artists have navigated the music industry, and how newer generations have learned from the past. Unfortunately, sometimes the older artists never see a dime from sample usage due to shady deals they signed, and don’t get to enjoy the fruits. It sadly feels like two generations clashing to get a piece of the pie, an ongoing narrative about the relationship between Black people in America.
In some ways the documentary is a sobering look at the story of a musician. But it is first and foremost Syl’s story, and it makes clear where the soul in his music comes from. People wondering about the name floating in and out of headlines would do well to see this. It’s a great story.