Funk on Film: Still Bill
"Most people don't know or don't care who you are. Sometimes if I tell somebody who I am they'll say 'No you ain't.'" -Bill Withers
Words By Andy DeVilbiss
Sadly, Bill Withers is right. You may not know or care who he is. At least not until someone clues you in to his list of funk and soul classics like "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean On Me," "Use Me," "Grandma's Hands," "Kissing My Love," and "Just the Two of Us." Then the light bulb comes on. You hear his smooth and emotive voice in your head, singing some of the most beautiful and honest lyrics ever penned, and you think, "Oh yeah. That guy! Whatever happened to him?"
The answer to that question is the subject of "Still Bill," a brilliant documentary released in 2009. Directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, the film features perhaps more honesty than I've ever seen from a musician and performer as Withers explains where he came from to become a superstar and how industry burnout and his desire to be a family man led him to pull a Keyser Soze over 25 years ago and completely vanish from music business. The film finds Withers his 70's, struggling to understand and appreciate his legacy and feeling the urge to make a little noise. As he puts it while stalking around his home studio, "I'm trying to give myself a chance to get driven. Thoreau I think said 'the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.' I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder."
You'll see Withers make his first trip back to his hometown since he left decades ago, visiting Slab Fork, West Virginia, a former mining camp. He tours around with an old friend, talking about growing up. It's particularly poignant when he talks about his memories of his grandmother, the subject of his song "Grandma's Hands" which he considers the best love song he's ever written. You'll hear him discuss how he got into the music business at a relatively advanced age, after writing songs on his job working on toilets for airline jets. You'll feel his disdain for the corporate machinery of the music industry, nowhere more pointed than when he talks about "blacksperts," the white industry guys who specialize in figuring out how to sell stuff to black people. That charged theme remains as he discusses matters of race, cultural impact and the music business on his porch with Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, where there's a pregnant pause and struggle in Bill's eyes as West asks him, "Both personally as a human being and as the great artist that you are, what would you want your legacy to be?" and he has no immediate answer.
You'll see the pure, unadulterated love Withers has for his wife and children, the main reason he decided to leave fame and fortune behind. However, even when it comes to family, Withers' brutal honesty remains at the forefront. His daughter Kori decided to follow in her father's footsteps and become a musician, and she recounts the story of the first time she sang something for him. Bill's response was a little less than positive, which though painful at the time, ultimately helped her become better at her craft. Withers' response to that story is to explain a bit of his realistic parenting approach by saying, "It's ok to head out for wonderful, but, on your way to wonderful, you're going to pass through alright. And when you get to alright, take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you're going to go."
You'll also see him finally begin to make his desperation get a little louder. He attends a tribute show in Brooklyn. He pops in on guitarist Cornell Dupree's gig, emerging from the crowd to sing. He invites Raul Midon to his home studio to collaborate on a track, and you can feel Withers' energy and excitement building. He also records a song with his daughter, and the tears streaming down his face while listening to it almost strike as validation - that, yes, he made the right choice to give up the fame and devote himself to his family.
The film is a portrait of a man of talent, wisdom and integrity and an insight into what stokes and snuffs the fires of artistry. This is man who is practical and realistic about his place in the musical world and who's not afraid to speak the truth, no matter the subject. It's riveting to watch him grapple with both himself and the outside forces in his life as he tries to get his creative juices flowing. And it's soulfully reassuring that he's still here and he's still Bill.
One more note... The song above was written by Withers after meeting a Vietnam War casualty. I know Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial kickoff for summer what with Phish tour, Summer Camp, swimsuits and cookouts. But remember what it's really about and take a few moments to reflect on the sacrifices made by the members of our U.S. military. Politics aside, those folks serve so that you and I don't have to, and their brave efforts should be commended. If it wasn't for them, neither you, me, nor Bill Withers would be living in a nation where it's still ok to speak your mind. To those who serve - past, present and future - thank you for what you do.