Just Bill: How and Why to Make a Film About Bill Withers

Jon Langmead

PopMatters talks with filmmakers Alex Vlack and Damani Baker about their unique look at an unassuming legend, Bill Withers.

How is it possible that, in the two decades since his last album of original songs was released, Bill Withers has managed to so effectively remain hidden in plain sight? Some of his most popular songs -- “Lean on Me", “Ain’t No Sunshine", and “Just the Two of Us” -- are standards, while others like “Grandma’s Hands", “Lovely Day", and the mammoth hook of “Use Me", seem to find their way back to the public’s ears every few years. But through it all, Withers himself has managed to remain almost invisible. His songs were plain-spoken numbers with often threadbare arrangements; at his best, Withers was a songwriter with a singular knack for getting to the heart of incredibly elusive feelings, simply by saying them out loud, just as they were. And when he wanted to, he and his band could groove like crazy. His most popular songs hit as hard as they did because we didn’t know how ready we were to hear words said in the particular, plain-as-day manner that Withers could say them. So, how he has not been dragged -- kicking, screaming or otherwise -- back into the spotlight for even the most perfunctory of career celebrations, is hard to understand.

There has been a well-deserved resurgence of interest in Withers’ work of late, with the reissue of several Withers albums, a New Yorker piece by Sasha Frere-Jones, and the release of the excellent documentary, Soul Power, by director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, featuring Withers’ strikingly powerful solo performance of “Hope She’ll Be Happier” from the Zaire ’74 Festival. The latest iteration of this newfound appreciation for Withers is Still Bill, the new documentary from directors Alex Vlack and Damani Baker. The film gets closer to Withers the man than most other attempts, and as a viewer, you can’t help but be wrapped up by him. He’s not exactly warm, but he is open and he wears his emotions almost impossibly close to the surface. In its way, this film is Vlack and Baker’s attempt to pull Withers back to prominence. “The thing with Bill is that I think most people think he’s dead, or he’s just not on people’s radar. It’s one of the reasons we decided to make this film. We just felt like, ‘How come everybody in the world isn’t wondering what the deal with Bill Withers is?’ And they’re just not,” says Vlack.

The film finds Withers living in Los Angeles with his wife of over thirty years and two grown children (“I have to be careful that I just don’t wallow in my own comfort,” he says at one point). Now 71, Withers still seems healthy and vital, at times coming off as less stooped than coiled, ready to spring. Baker and Vlack began the film with no prospect of how to contact Withers. They set out collecting interviews and footage from his past, anyway, all while still pursuing some kind of direct contact. “What really kind of sparked the first contact,” says Baker, “was an email address we got through a friend; that was Marcia Withers [Bill’s wife]. We wrote her just a blind ‘Hello,’ and ‘we love Bill Withers’ music and we have this kind of passion project that’s a documentary on your husband’s life and would you be interested?’ And we didn’t hear anything for a long time. She did agree to take a meeting with us, eventually, and we jumped on planes and sat with her for a couple of hours and had this lovely lunch with Marcia Withers and at that point, that was as close as we’d gotten outside of kind of harassing Sony. We went to friends, we created a press kit, we sort of built this film without Bill Withers. So, Marcia Withers said, ‘I’ll take this meeting with you,’ and we met with her and she said, ‘I’ll talk to my husband about it but I can’t make any promises.’ And another few years pass.”

In the meantime, they pitched a Bill Withers tribute concert to friends at the Celebrate Brooklyn organization. “So now, we have this one meeting with Marcia Withers, we have now a potential concert honoring Bill and covering his music going on, and still no Bill Withers,” says Baker. They were eventually able to secure one meeting with Withers, which led to multiple interviews at his home in California and trips to Withers’ hometown in Slab Fork, West Virginia. The concert in Brooklyn also came off, featuring performances from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Corey Glover (as well as Withers himself, who jumped onstage to sing “Grandma’s Hands”) and finally, after years of planning, waiting, and hoping, the film became a reality.

Vlack and Baker have compiled some outstanding archival footage (in particular, some fine bits with the staggeringly good band that supported Withers in his prime, featuring keyboardist Ray Jackson and the great James Gadson on drums), but it’s solely used to support their portrait of Withers’ life now, which includes some new music recorded at his home studio. “You can get the hits and we all know those songs, and we all love them but we thought this was an incredible opportunity to show just a man, who is struggling with aging, who is trying to figure out his relationship with his daughter in terms of their collaboration musically,” says Baker. “And there’s all these things going on that we thought, ‘I hope people buy this,’ because it just feels completely honest and real and its 100% from Bill, and so that’s the path we chose.”

“Neither of us were particularly interested in making a sort-of ‘Behind the Music,’” says Vlack. “Just because it’s not interesting to us as filmmakers. And I think what basically happened is that for so long we weren’t getting any access to him that we essentially assumed that we were going to make this kind of hybrid movie that had concert footage woven together with interviews with artists who he’d influenced and it really was more going to be about the true importance of his influence as opposed to kind of a straight biographical thing. And once we met him, and we just realized that he was such an unbelievable guy and the more time we spent with him the more we just kept thinking, ‘This needs to be a film about him as a person, not about his life so much.’ So I think the more that we just kind of learned about him and spent time with him and just experienced what it’s like to be around such a wise and complex, interesting guy that we realized that’s the experience we want people to have watching it. So, you can go to Wikipedia or whatever and actually get more biographical information about Bill Withers than you can if you watch our movie, but you won’t know what he’s like as a person.”

What the film presents is truly a unique experience. Throughout the film, Withers comes off as incredibly well-adjusted to what life has brought him, from his early life in very rural West Virginia to a career in the Navy to his eventual success as a musician whose career netted him three gold records and four top-ten singles. His final album was released in 1985, after which Withers effectively walked away from his career over disputes with his record company, including their desire to revamp his image (Take a look at the cover of his 1981 Greatest Hits compilation and you might think Withers made his name as a particularly versatile maitre’d). He’s been silent since and has shown no intentions of trying to reclaim his past glory in any kind of public way, particularly touring as an oldies act. “It would be kind of rough right now to just go out there and say, ‘I want to see how many people I can make notice me,’” Withers says in the film. “There was a time when that was it, man. This is not that time.” Still Bill sees Withers speaking in the same way that he wrote lyrics; to the point, in a way that gets at a truth you can’t stop seeing once he puts it into words for you.

The interviews with Withers are particularly refreshing in that he betrays no bitterness, regret or uneasy nostalgia. “Do you know how unhappy you would be if you thought that the way you are is not okay?” he asks, as if the thought of feeling that way had never entered his mind… though, of course it has. “I started out my life like that. I don’t want to end it up like that,” he adds, and it begins to become clear from where his calm insight derives. “I know what it feels like not to feel alright, you know…pain, regret, aches, and pain. I’d really like to learn to accept everything before I die.” His emotions stay level when discussing his past and his present relationship to it, but his eyes are filled with tears as he speaks to an audience at the Our Time Theatre in New York for children with stutters (Withers stuttered as a child and you can still detect it at times when he speaks). He clearly holds onto a lot, and it makes for an incredibly moving scene. It’s the sort of intimate, telling moment that Vlack and Baker manage to capture a couple of times in Still Bill.

“I think that he’s come to terms with everything,” says Vlack. “His mantra is sort of ‘contentment with oneself.’ He’s very enlightened in the sense of not letting any external terms get in the way of his personal contentment. He’s not like, the jolliest fellow in the world; he’s got fears and sadness and stuff like that, but be can recognize those things and still be content.” With Still Bill, Vlack and Baker have crafted a portrait that manages to simultaneously introduce audiences to an amazing songwriter’s past accomplishments while also capturing poignant glances at his life today, and at its best feels as honest and searching as Wither’s own most lasting songs.

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