Sunday, January 30, 2011

On DVD: "Still Bill"

Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s documentary Still Bill begins with its subject, ‘70s soul singer Bill Withers, performing his most iconic song, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” It uncoils slowly, just the strum of his guitar and that pure, luminous, emotional voice. Strangely, though it’s a song I’ve heard dozens—if not hundreds—of times, I’d never really noticed how spare it is. He’s almost all alone out there, naked and raw, baring his soul, and when the bass, drum, and strings ease in, they only increase his burden; he can’t hide behind them.

The song is forty years old this year, but you can still get lost in it. That sparseness, the sparseness of the music is probably why—Withers’s music hasn’t aged as badly as some of his contemporaries, because he kept it so very simple. When that simplicity was taken from him, by a variety of meddling execs, A&R men, and (in his words) “blaxperts,” he lost his passion for it. In stark contrast to the opening performance is a later clip of Withers on American Bandstand, singing the (admittedly exemplary) jazz/disco ballad “Just the Two of Us,” all synthesizers and horns and backup singers. The expression on his face could politely be described as “pained.” In 1985, he released his last studio album. He’s spent the years since enjoying the company of his family and friends.

Still Bill functions as both a non-linear biography and an examination of a living legend in his twilight years. He celebrates his 70th birthday on camera; he goes to his high school reunion. “I’m a senior citizen,” he explains. “That’s okay. I’m okay with my graying hair and my narrowing shoulders.” He has a small recording studio in his home, but he doesn’t use it; walking the cameraman in, he muses, “Here’s all this stuff that I don’t know how to work.” He goes back to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, hangs out with his childhood buddy, visits the family graves.

In between these vignettes of the life he’s made for himself are scenes of the life he left behind, and how he got there: his quick rise to success in 1971, recording “Ain’t No Sunshine” while laid off from his job building toilets for 747s (he got a call to come back to work the same day he got the call to go appear on Carson); his years of success, seen in photos, TV footage, and music performances; how he met his wife, started a family, and strove for normalcy.

He still enjoys that normalcy, and in his interviews, he comes across as an enormously grounded, thoughtful, and contemplative guy. There are moments where the music bug is clearly biting, as he attends a tribute concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, or when he goes into his studio with guitarist and songwriter Raul Midion to record a lovely Latin-flavored song. He’s having a great time in there. He quotes Thoreau: “The mass of men lead lives of quite desperation,” and he thinks that over. “I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder,” he announces.

Baker and Vlack’s film is ingeniously assembled, but not in a showy or distracting way, and their cameras capture two moments that are downright extraordinary. In the first, he goes to talk with a group of speech students. Withers grew up with a stutter; it still occasionally resurfaces. But as he talks with them, about what it is to interact with others and remain themselves (their better selves, in fact), tears fill his eyes. Later in the film, he collaborates with his daughter Kori, an aspiring singer-songwriter. They listen to the song she’s recorded in his studio, and as he listens, the tears fall down his cheeks. It’s a tremendously powerful moment, and a remarkably unguarded one.

Throughout Still Bill, we catch glimpses of a conversation between Withers, Dr. Cornel West, and Tavis Smiley; it feels like a bit of a construction, for the benefit of the cameras, but it results in one striking moment. West poses a simple question: “What would you want your legacy to be?” There is a long pause. Withers doesn’t answer—not then. But in the final scene, he walks alone, smiling, and is at peace. I’ve seldom felt as happy for someone in a film. Still Bill is a brief film, and rather slight, but it is intimate, lively, and lovely indeed.

"Still Bill" is available now on DVD. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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