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Still Bill
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by Jay Seaver

"... and he's always gone too long."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: The recording studio that occupies a fair-sized chunk of Bill Withers's Los Angeles home in "Still Bill" is a tremendous tease. It's new-looking, with plenty of digital tools, which certainly suggests that the man behind "Lean on Me" and "Just the Two of Us" has written and recorded new music relatively recently, even though his last album came out in 1985.

Still Bill doesn't get into the specifics of the conflicts between Withers and Columbia Records back then; that information is out there for those who want to look. Instead, it gives us a look at Withers' life and personality to perhaps explain why he was able to just walk away from show business when many other men would fight the labels or do whatever was necessary to stay in the public eye. It's not so much that he's a man at peace with himself - indeed, he's wise enough to say, in a roundabout sort of way, that his calm demeanor owes as much to shyness as it does to contentment. He is fairly content; one of the aphorisms he offers to the camera and to his children is "on the way to wonderful, you'll pass through all right. Stop and take a look around, because you may be staying," and he does seem to be all right with all right.

Indeed, he seems to have come to that realization before he made it in show business. We learn about his childhood in Slab Fork, West Virginia, a played-out coal town, followed by stints in the Navy and working for various aerospace companies. Not only is Bill a fine storyteller, but we go on trips with him, back to Slab Fork to visit a childhood friend and to reunions with Navy buddies and high-school classmates. A scene where Bill walks through a white graveyard to visit the overgrown patch where his father and other relations are buried says more about the segregation of his youth than words could; it's close to being randomly placed stones in the middle of the woods.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film is the relationship between Bill and his daughter Kori. Though son Todd is in law school, Kori wants to follow in her father's footsteps. We see her operating the production equipment when her father does a song with Raul Midon (as far as I know, "Mi Amigo Cubano" has not appeared any place other than this film), and we see her writing her own music. It seems like a tricky subject, though - as the camera pans past pictures of Kori and Bill on stage or otherwise playing music, Kori's voiceover paints Bill as something less than fully encouraging - he does not dole out praise lightly.

That's the closest the film comes to having anything negative to say about Withers, although even that isn't as one-sided as it sounds; Bill has great pride in his children. The interview footage in taken in his home is sharp and bright, emphasizing how sharp and clean all the lines are. Withers's post-music industry life is orderly and prosperous, it seems, and he's happy enough to not want to do much to upset that.

I can respect that, even if I'd really like to know what he's got on tape and hard drive in that home recording studio. It's odd; we see so many stories of musicians who fell prey to drugs or living it up that Bill Withers, with his 30-year marriage, nice kids, and comfortable life, seems unusual.

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originally posted: 03/21/09 01:19:57
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival For more in the 2009 SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/17/11 Tony Bernez What a wonderful film about a man of great integrity! Loved it! 5 stars
2/26/11 Dr. John J. Pierce Tremendous documentary. I was a fan before and this made me a bigger fan of the real person 5 stars
2/17/11 rodrick marshall Living legend,its too bad that greed or the need to control artist cost us....... 5 stars
2/14/11 Vicki Case White An awesome, emotional journey into the artist behind the music. Want more! 5 stars
2/10/11 Brenda McCullough This film was thoroughly enjoyable. Loved the artist; knew little about the man. 5 stars
2/07/11 Melvin Tucker this was a very well documentary and very well put together...i'm so proud of Bill Withers. 5 stars
2/07/11 Mia Lopez This film was wonderful & promoted keeping his ledgend alive! Our children need to be expos 5 stars
10/10/09 John Wonderful film. Great story, well-told, the music makes the audience sing. 5 stars
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  29-Jan-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 25-Jan-2011



Directed by
  Damani Baker

Written by

  Bill Withers

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