Bill Withers seems like an unlikely subject for a movie, right? Even if you’re a soul music fan, hell-even if you were a Bill Withers fan up until the point that “Still Bill” was made, his life seemed like it was one of the least likely for even a documentary. An unassuming, regular-Joe singer/songwriter, Withers amassed a string of hits over the course of a decade before abruptly retiring to concentrate on family life. No drugs, no paralyzing car accidents, no tax exile, no jail time, no bankruptcy. He did what he did and then left.
Believe me when I tell you, though-“Still Bill” is a must-see movie. The documentary traces Bill’s rise to success as well as his sudden withdrawal from the pop music scene, and eventually finds the singer inching back towards making music. It’s a riveting documentary for a number of reasons-positively joyful in parts, incredibly sad in others. You get to return with Withers to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia-a place that appears to be as rural as it sounds, and follow Bill’s journey from there into the military. Strangely, Withers wasn’t one of those guys that dreamed of a music career as a kid-not picking up the guitar until he was well into his adulthood and not getting signed to a record contract until he was in his thirties. It’s a career arc that’s virtually impossible these days.
As you’d imagine from someone who signed his first record contract when he was of a fairly worldly age, Withers got tired of the meddling from record execs and retired in the mid-Eighties. It seems as though the discomfort of being a pop star had begun to wear on him even before then, as evidenced by a couple of TV clips from the Eighties that find Withers looking extremely ill-at-ease. Despite all that, Withers doesn’t give off the impression of being unnecessarily bitter. He actually gives off sort of a Bill Cosby vibe-stern but caring, stoic but loving. He talks like someone who’s seen a lot. He’s got a beautiful wife, two attractive and intelligent (and successful) kids and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of regret, although it’s no surprise that, like most confessional singer/songwriters, there’s an undercurrent of sadness to his music as well as the movie. You do get a sense that the desire to make music still burns in him after watching him in the studio with modern soul musician Raul Midon as well as his daughter Kori (and, selfish man that I am, I wouldn’t mind hearing from or seeing Bill Withers, who at 72 could still probably still take most modern-day singer/songwriters to school .
When you break it down, it’s really about the music. Despite a plethora of hit singles (which include some of the most covered songs of the past forty years), I’d say Bill Withers is actually underrated. He’s a three-time Grammy Award winner, but when you think of defining artists of the Seventies, I’d bet his name doesn’t come up. Bobby Womack’s in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, but I’d put Withers’ body of work up against his with no problem at all (no disrespect at all to Womack). Actually, for the first decade or so of his career, I’d compare Withers most (from a stylistic as well as a lyrical standpoint) to another Hall of Famer-James Taylor. Despite getting a glimpse into Withers’ life, despite the cameos from Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Angelique Kidjo and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, despite a particularly moving passage during which Bill discusses the speech impediment he suffered from as a youth ,the parts of “Still Bill” that you will treasure the most all have to do with Bill picking up his guitar and singing. For the music alone, “Still Bill” is worth your purchase-everything else is just icing on the cake.
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