Monday, January 25, 2010

Still Bill Withers

He hung with Ali in Zaire. He also had some of the biggest hits of the 1970’s, but Bill Withers has resisted the lure of easy money touring the nostalgia circuit. Indeed, Withers emerges as that rare superstar more concerned with family than the fleeting trappings of fame in Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s Still Bill (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

Withers came to music relatively late in life. A Navy veteran, Withers had a good paying blue collar job making airliner toilets before he was temporarily laid off. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By the time the factory called to rehire Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” was climbing the charts. Instead of going back to work, Withers accepted an invitation from the Tonight Show.

Since Withers has not desperately clung to the spotlight, many younger viewers might be surprised to hear how many of his songs they will recognize, including “Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Just the Two of Us,” and “Grandma’s Hands.” Never a fan of the major labels, Withers directs some pointed remarks at the recording industry. Indeed, anyone who has just had the first hit record should probably talk to Withers for advice both about the industry and for keeping grounded. When recalling his first breakthrough hits, Withers shrewdly remarks: “New words started to enter my life that had never been there before, like ‘handsome.’ Boy, you sure do get better looking when you get a hit record.”

Though access to Withers was initially a challenge for Baker and Vlack, he eventually embraced the project, granting them hundreds of hours of interviews and candid footage. They follow him during the course very documentary-like encounters, like his return to his childhood home of Slab Fork, West Virginia and a reunion with some of his Navy buddies. Yet, even though Withers has plenty to say, he often still sounds rather guarded. However, the filmmakers struck documentary gold when they filmed Withers backstage at a benefit for the nonprofit Our Time theater group for young people who stutter. A former stutter, Withers truly opens when meeting the kids in private in what are easily the film’s most revealing scenes.

Wisely, Baker and Vlack include generous samples of Withers music, including all his greatest hits. We also learn that Withers still makes music, but only what he wants to do for himself rather than what a record label might like to package and market. We even hear him in live performance at a rare tribute concert, performing “Grandma’s Hands” with the great funk guitarist Cornell Dupree. However, perhaps most indicative of music’s current place in his life is his impromptu duet with his daughter Kori on genuinely touching “Telephone Call Away.”

Clearly, Baker and Vlack idolize Withers. Yet, Still Bill delves deeper into its subject’s psyche than has been possible for many recent documentaries on other musical figures. While the film should convert many viewers into fans, the cool thing about Withers is that he still really does not care about such superficial popularity. It opens this Wednesday (1/27) in New York at the IFC Center.