Syl Johnson documentary seeks crowdfunding

July 9, 2013

Syl Johnson is finally being recognized as one of Chicago music’s living legends. Now a documentary film looks to solidify that status and convey the essence of the ever-youthful 77-year-old soul singer. But the crew needs some help to finish the project.

Syl Johnson: Any Way The Wind Blows is already a four-year old project of director Rob Hatch-Miller and producers Puloma Basu and Michael Slaboch. The trio has funded production themselves so far, but Tuesday they launched a Kickstarter. Alongside a compelling trailer for the film, the Kickstarter project looks to raise $40,000 by August 8th.

The Kickstarter pitch states that telling Johnson’s story is important because it “creates a unique opportunity for people to consider the history of racial politics in America, the complexities of the music business, and issues of creative ownership and compensation.”

There was a time not too long ago that Johnson’s legacy -- including his hits from the ‘60s and ‘70s -- could have been forgotten. As Sound Opinions’ Greg Kot said via email:

“In the '60s, Syl Johnson was a multi-threat singer-songwriter-musician-producer who helped shape Chicago soul, and crafted at least one classic album, "Is it Because I'm Black?" In the '70s he scored hits recording with Willie Mitchell in Memphis. But real recognition would not come until decades later when his visionary work was sampled by countless artists. He was ahead of his time.”

Unfortunately Johnson’s recording contracts were very much of their time, especially for African-American artists. That meant even though he scored 19 chart singles, he saw only a small fraction of the profits.

“He’s somebody who sort of made his own comeback,” said Any Way The Wind Blows director Rob Hatch-Miller. “He found out that hip-hop artists were using his music and he went after money for it, and used that money to win the rights to his own catalog. Now he has his own masters and he’s made a lot of money in a tough business.”

Owning the master recordings of his catalog made it possible for Chicago label Numero Group to issue a definitive box set in 2010 called Syl Johnson: Complete Mythology.

Just before the box set’s release, the label scheduled a tour with Johnson headlining. Numero Group associate Michael Slaboch was managing the tour.

“Numero was doing their Eccentric Soul Revue tour and before they came to New York, Michael asked if I wanted to come out and film some stuff for them to put on the web,” Hatch-Miller said. “I filmed the interview Syl Johnson did at WFMU with DJ Trouble and I just really liked him as a character right away.”

Hatch-Miller, who is also a DJ at WFMU, noticed in the interview that Johnson kept mentioning he wanted to write a book about his life. “At the end of the interview I told him that I make documentaries and was looking for a story and would totally be interested in doing a film about you. He was open to it, so we kept in communication. It was a very organic process.”

Since then the crew has filmed more than 50 hours of interviews and live performances. They even accompanied Johnson to Los Angeles when Complete Mythology was nominated for a Grammy.

Finding traditional film funding has proven difficult. This is despite music documentary Searching For Sugarman winning the Best Documentary Oscar last year and the Big Star film Hatch-Miller worked on making a splash in recent weeks.

“We’ve been trying to raise money for this film really hardcore for the last year or so and haven’t had a lot of success. I’m a first time feature-filmmaker and frankly there’s not a lot of money out there for films about the arts,” Hatch-Miller said.

Hatch-Miller may be unproven as a feature director, but he and spouse Puloma Basu have made a long string of music videos with director Tom Scharpling, also a WFMU DJ. Their shot-for-shot remake of the “Voices Carry” video for Aimee Mann was hailed by many as the best music video of 2012 (after “Gangnam Style,” of course).

Hatch-Miller’s experience with WFMU’s idiosyncratic pledge drives comes through in the gifts offered to supporters of the Kickstarter. “We want to give people more than an incentive to support a good project, we want to have cool stuff that people are actually gonna want to have.”

Those incentives include a Sly Johnson tote-bag designed by Project Runway contestant Joseph Aaron Segal, music festival passes and packs of rare vinyl.

“One of the things we desperately need money for is archival research,” Hatch-Miller said. “[Johnson] was on Soul Train a bunch of times when it was a local show and apparently there aren’t any archives of that stuff. There must be some collectors out there who have it.”

They also need to travel to Memphis to delve into the ‘70s era of Syl’s career, when he worked with Willie Mitchell and Hi Records.

Then there’s the hip-hop interviews.

“We really want to have Rza in the film, but scheduling is really tough. When something like that gets scheduled, we have to be able to go where he is with a film crew,” Hatch-Miller explained.

Hatch-Miller wants to tour Johnson to film festivals with the final product too.

“We want to finish this film now while he’s around,” he said. “We want people to know about him.”

Hatch-Miller points to Rodriguez’s recent sold-out tours following the success of Searching For Sugarman.

“I love Rodriguez, but he only did two good albums,” he said. “Syl Johnson did two good records in Chicago before he even became famous. I’ve seen Rodriguez and I’ve seen Syl Johnson. Syl Johnson is to James Brown or Al Green as Rodriguez is to Bob Dylan. And to me, Syl is closer to James Brown than Rodriguez is to Dylan.”

Andrew Gill is a web producer for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.