DON'T KNOCK THE ROCK: Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows

Live set from DJ Mean Mr. Mustard

Fans of 1960s R&B music know Syl Johnson as an influential African-American artist who cut under-appreciated classics like “Come On Sock It To Me” and “Is It Because I’m Black.” Despite enormous talent and a dynamic stage presence, mainstream success never happened for Syl. He drifted into obscurity while his smooth, sexy-voiced rival Al Green (“Let’s Stay Together”) zoomed to stardom. Syl eventually quit music and opened a chain of fast-food fish restaurants after disco crushed the memory of soul. Story over, right? Not so fast. Payback’s a bitch, and Syl—a righteously aggrieved curmudgeon—took his revenge in a most satisfying way. The opening seconds of his 1967 song “Different Strokes”—primal grunts over a stark drumbeat with Minnie Riperton’s laughter swirling overhead—became one of the most sampled breakbeats in hip-hop, and Syl turned into a litigation machine. And he was a natural! Syl got so much money from RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan that he now calls his home “The House That Wu Built.” While he chased down more people to sue, a new generation of fans discovered his classic records through the reissue record label Numero Group, and Syl’s on-stage career was reborn. With a funky, energetic soundtrack, an original score by Yo La Tengo, and interviews with hip-hop icons RZA, Prince Paul, Jazzy Jay, and Peanut Butter Wolf, this documentary is a buoyant and satisfying celebration of an unsung legend who stuck around around long enough to finally enjoy his redemption.

Dir. Robert Hatch-Miller, 2015, DCP, 85 min.

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