Director: Alex Vlack & Damani Baker; Cast: Bill Withers, Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Sting, Jim James; Runtime: 77 minutes
The saddest part about talent is that far too many people take it personally. Everyone has had a hero die in biography, particularly in the arts where the trend has been toward creating a culture of decadence and sacrificial tyrants. We raise them up, they fuck up their lives and talent, and we feed them to the collective volcano called Fame. Watching Still Bill, I can’t remember being so moved by an artist’s life and words. I can’t remember the last time I learned about someone both gifted and wise. Still Bill paints an earnest portrait of the artist as modest craftsman. In Still Bill, truth actually is beauty and beauty is truth.
Having Bill Withers as the narrative guide would present more quandaries for a different kind of person. But his warmth and vulnerability disarm many of the questions about allowing someone to shape so much of their own story arc. Withers speaks in Southern koans, disarming in his humility, depth, and philosophical perspective on life. The directors take us walking with Withers through the old, ivied segregated graveyard where he looks for the graves of his family. We visit the rural, coal mining town of his youth and talk to friends he’s had since childhood or old neighbors who yell from their porch for a few lines of “Ain’t No Sunshine”. What works so well in Still Bill is the slow flow and the unobtrusiveness of the directors. It has clear structure and even something of a climactic moment, but every frame has the arresting rocking chair cadence of true intimacy. There’s no persona in Bill Withers, no sense that he remade himself to make music, a concept so foreign in a contemporary culture of icons like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince.
It’s clear that Withers never had the caste of the superstar. A stuttering asthmatic in his youth, Withers didn’t seem to be destined for music as he made his way through the military and several aircraft mechanic jobs. Vlack and Baker know how to convey ideas with perfects shot: Bill Withers lifetime of hard work gets shown by a gentle gliding close up on his knotty, weathered hands. Withers seems every bit the devoted family man, winding down his touring as he began having children with his wife. Repeated references are made to Wither’s issues with the music business, but the specifics are never really given. The absence takes nothing away from the documentary, but it’s the viewer’s natural instinct to get the dirt on his disillusionment. His family life appears placid and healthy. There’s an evolving tension between Withers and his daughter who also wants to be a singer, but his initial critical eye toward her work appears only to have been a push toward greatness as they eventually end up in the studio with him in tears over the beauty his daughter has created. Where’s the rehab? There are no backstage blowjobs, junkies, violent run-ins with the police, or self-entitled Caligulation.
It’s hard to sit through this documentary and not want to simply flood the page with superlatives. Withers is such a wise and moving figure that epiphanies frequently spill out of his mouth, though with the reined concision of a former stutterer. When he accepts an award at an arts theater dedicated to young people who stutter, he moves everyone in the room with his insight, grace, and eloquence, drawing out lessons from life like the ones her learned at his Grandma’s knee. He cold calls Cuban musician Raul Midon and asks him to jam in his home studio. He reflects on the natural cycle out of being the center of attention and how artists should realize when “it”, whatever “it” is, has left the building. He’s fully human and adult, without artifice or some arch sense of his own place in musical history. I have written about music for so long that I have become jaded to the entire concept of having a concept. Bill Withers realness was penetrating, revelatory, and leaves me effusively speechless. Still Bill is the antidote for every toxic seep of the TMZ-ification of the arts.
Only one small piece of the documentary broke the pulling spell. I mention it only because I’ve seen it too many times before in too many music documentaries. In the Joe Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, we got to hear rootless and platitudinous commentary from people like Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp. Not because of their relevant insights to the life of the artist, but simply to fumigate the story with the stench of celebrity. It’s just an extravagance that adds nothing significant to the story unless you are trying in someway to have a contemporary map of influences as part of the story. So why do Vlack and Baker give us Sting’s ethereal commentary on Bill Withers? He could have been talking about clotted cream for all the specificity given in his adoration. There is no historic or musical connection and it runs completely counter to Withers’ approach to life, the industry, and his critique of the adulation of celebrities over hard, working folks with underappreciated talents. I don’t even care what Sting has to say about Sting; here, this Lazy Susan of talking pop heads should burn on the cutting room floor. Similarly, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley falling over themselves to adore Withers added nothing to the documentary but an opportunity for West and Smiley to appear to be “on” the Bill Withers tip. Who cares?
Bill Wither’s seems to me to be the “Working Class Hero” that Lennon aspired to be, but never really was. He was a artist that learned a life away from his craft, only to return to playful experimentation in his golden years. He is brilliant and decent, a man who loved making music, but never confused the burning desire to create with the fame whore’s will-to-power.