Still Bill


Still Bill- nf  It is very possible that you have never heard of  singer songwriter Bill Withers unless you are a big fan of rhythm and blues of the 1970s-1980s and thereabouts. But almost for sure  you have heard recordings of him singing his music , Lean on Me, Aint No Sunshine, Just the Two of Us and many other great hits of that time. Damani Baker and Alex Vlack as young filmmakers knew about his music and a little about the man and as is often the case with Independent films, it took them about 11 years to make this documentary. Needless to say , it has a great music track. It is a film not just about the man and his music but it is about the character of man who wasn’t out for the adulation and glory that easily descended upon him. He cared about expressing himself in the stories that he wanted to tell through his music. He led an unlikely career and then faded from the public music scene at the height of his fame. He was born the youngest of 6 children in the  coal mining town of Slab Folk  West Virgina . His grandfather was born a slave and he was greatly influenced by his grandmother whom he immortalized in one of his classic songs, Grandma’s Hand . He stuttered for the first 28 years of his life  He enlisted in the US Navy and worked as a mechanic and then took a job in an aircraft factory. Around this time he started playing the guitar and writing songs and decided to give it a try when he was given the opportunity to record an album. He had no idea if it would work out and was prepared to continue his work “ installing Johns on planes.” Almost overnight his album was a gigantic hit and he found himself on the Johnny Carson show. This documentary begins with a 70 year old seemingly very contented Bill Withers who hasn’t been on the music scene for probably at least 20 years. He is married and his daughter is  finding her way as a singer. He reflects on his career and how he has faded into the background because, as he says, he just doesn’t have much to say at present. He appears to be financially secure having had 3 gold albums with numerous successful songs and having toured and sang with many great musicians. The film makers show the essence of this man through informal conversations with several of his friends including Tavis Smiley, Jim Brown (the football player) , Bill Russell (the basketball player) , his son, wife, daughter and others.  At times he tears up as for example when he visits a school where young students with stuttering problems put on a small concert for him. In a heartwarming sequence although perhaps somewhat contrived, he decides to go back into the studio with a good friend who is a blind musician and his daughter. They begin to write and record. Wither’s delight in the process and in the music seems genuine and is wonderful to watch. The documentary ends on this note. You get the feeling that there is now more to come. (2009)

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