Genre: Music Documentary
Year Released: 2014
Distributor: XL Recordings
Running Time: 48 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Gil Scott-Heron: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Louder Than a Bomb, We Are Poets, Slam
-Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? is streaming on YouTube.
-Special thanks to Zenas Hopson for telling me about this documentary. Check out his music here.
-Gil Scott-Heron was born in Chicago before living in Jackson, TN, and eventually in New York City. He’s of Jamaican descent and his father was the first black player in the Scottish soccer team Celtic F. C.
-Scott-Heron’s music has been sampled by people such as MF Doom, Black Star, Common, Talib Kweli, and Kanye West. Speaking of sampling, the Jamie XX remix of his cover of “I’ll Take Care of You” was overtly sampled in a hit song in 2012. What was the big song that used the beat of that remix, lyrics from that song, and even brief background vocal samples from this musician? “Take Care” by Drake and Rihanna. That’s the song.
-XL Recordings signed Gil Scott-Heron during his last years of life. Do you know who else XL has signed that is currently on the label? Radiohead, Adele, Frank Ocean, and Jack White to name a few.
-This was directed by English filmmaking duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. They are from Manchester and Newcastle respectively and have worked on 20,000 Days on Earth, EDIT, and Anyone Else Isn’t You.
-Gil Scott-Heron’s protege is Malik Al Nasir. He’s a Guyanese/Welsh author and poet from Liverpool who has his own band Malik & the OGs.
Spoken word has become more common in music over the years. You certainly have some successful bands like mewithoutYou and La Dispute incorporating those things. Even Twenty One Pilots has incorporated poetry in their music (“Car Radio” being a major example from them). However, fans of those bands and others are unaware of how long that fusion of art has been around. I will also ignore the low-hanging fruit as to why fans of those aforementioned bands may not be aware and why they would be ignorant of some of the pioneers, but I won’t go there. Fortunately, we have some documentaries around that talk about some innovators. This one involves a self-proclaimed piano man from Tennessee who helped influence spoken word music, rap, and jazz poetry of sorts.
The revolution will not be televised, but at least this documentary could be.
Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? is a documentary about the life and career of this aforementioned poet/musician. Many musicians, creative types, friends, and family discuss the late musician’s decades of being in the music scene. There’s archived footage with Scott-Heron in the studio, his concerts, older interviews, and some everyday life of his during his last few years on this planet (he passed away in 2011, by the way).
I started listening to Gil Scott-Heron years ago, but I never considered myself to be super knowledgeable about his music. This documentary rekindled that interest especially as my taste in music has changed since then. It was great getting all these insights about his character. Despite having success in music, it sounds like he was humble about it by having cash in VHS cases instead of Swiss bank accounts or by giving back to smaller artists regardless if they got signed to a major label or not. He was also conscious of talking about racism, gentrification, and other serious topics in his music. This goes beyond anything the bands I talked about in the opening paragraph and I like some of their music. Gil Scott-Heron even has an interesting sense of humor. When a fan asked him about when he was going to make new music, it was said that he asked said fan if he listened to everything in his discography, the fan said no, so Scott-Heron’s response was “That’s your new music.” when it comes to music they haven’t listened to at the time. I did have my concerns about this documentary turning into a hagiography, but they did mention some of his flaws. One example involved one of the interviewees talking about how if someone dared to disagree with Scott-Heron, then they would “get the axe”. Besides the brilliant content, the production was great. There was a mix of shots of the interviewees sitting by a table, footage of New York City, and recurring archived footage that is superimposed on a TV at a random video store which was a nice touch. There’s even a scene where Scott-Heron even walks into that same video store to buy something and to talk with the employee there, so there was some swell cohesion with the backgrounds and locations. The music was certainly wonderful as it mixed his older and newer works in the background.
Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? could use some tuning here and there. I thought that the music did emphasize more of his newer works more often. I understand it given XL’s distribution deal and that was the last label Gil Scott-Heron signed to, but they could’ve played a lot more of his older music. While some of his flaws were mentioned, some of those aspects were vague like him “living the blues”. I’m not asking to throw dirt on him, but a little more conflict would’ve made some of this narrative stronger in hindsight. I also wondered about some of the interviewees. A lot of them made sense like his backup musicians, Malik, or Russell the owner of XL who also produced his final album, but they could’ve gotten some more people who were closer like additional family members or people who claimed direct influence of his music. One missed opportunity is mentioning how many people have been directly or indirectly influenced by his music or even some contemporaries. The Last Poets would be an obvious choice for a contemporary and you could bring in various musicians and bands who owe something to the “godfather of rap” or “the black Bob Dylan” if you will.
This was a stellar documentary to watch for this very influential musician. Maybe I’m a bit biased since I’m a spoken word artist, but I swear that I wouldn’t rip him off. The cinematography was well-done and there were so many jewels to take from Scott-Heron’s wisdom and music. I do wish that it could’ve been a bit longer and had more viewpoints from musicians on here. Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? is a great watch for fans and non-fans alike.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you’re a Gil Scott-Heron fan or at least spoken word music.
Subtract 1-2 points if you’re not into jazz or hip-hop.
-Unique insights into Gil Scott-Heron’s life
-Missed opportunities with certain interviewees
-Some of Gil Scott-Heron’s flaws were vague
-Emphasizes newer songs
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? should be alright with teens and up. There’s drinking, smoking, and some F-bombs dropped, but nothing else is objectionable besides those things.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Who Is Gil Scott-Heron? is property of XL Recordings. The screenshot is from YouTube and is property of XL Recordings.