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Still Bill

Justin here with a look at the new documentary, Still Bill, which is about one of my favorite singers, Bill Withers.

Bill Withers is one of the finest singers and songwriters ever. I think “Lean on Me” is the closest thing America has to a modern hymn. That’s not to mention Withers’ other fantastic songs, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Harlem.” The first song my wife and I danced to at our wedding was “Lovely Day.” So I went into Still Bill with a lot of love and hopefulness - luckily so did the film makers.

From Still Bill, I got the sense that Withers is basically a regular guy who happens to be a really talented musician. I got the impression that there was no major drama in his career other than the typical kind with record labels. He wasn’t part of the salacious debauchery you expect to see on a Behind the Music type show. The story arc here is about normal guy Bill who came on the scene late in life, recorded some great music and disappeared.

Withers is unassuming. He doesn’t have a legendary rock and roll type story. I was largely ignorant about his life and a lot of the details of his career until I watched Still Bill. I imagine a lot of potential viewers are. The documentary starts off with a concise recap of Bill’s career culled mostly from archival footage of interviews with people like Johnny Carson as well as some vintage performances. He joined the navy at 17 and shortly afterwards got a job building toilets for Boeing 747s. Bill released “Ain’t No Sunshine” when he was 32 followed by a few classic albums until his last one in 1985.

After laying the foundations, we catch up with Bill Withers, now in his late 60’s/early 70’s retired and living in a beautiful home with his wife and enjoying life with his friends and family while attending the occasional reunion. It seems like a “happily ever after” to a successful career. Bill says he left music because he was frustrated with the business side of things but also because he wanted to be a full-time dad. From the perspective of a fan, Bill got out of music at essentially the right time; he was still relevant and fresh when he called it a day. He wasn't exactly at his peak, but he wasn't far from it. While this is great for Withers, personally, it doesn't make for a great story – there’s no real conflict.

The movie records Bill’s first baby steps back into the music game. His family guesses that he’s kept writing songs in his head since his last album was released 25 years ago. Bill talks about wanting to make some more music but is realistic about his limitations as a 70 year old. He ultimately teams up with some friends and works on some new songs. In the end joins a blues guitarist on stage to deliver a moving rendition of “Grandma’s Hands.” It’s awesome to see Bill Withers start to make music again. I know that I would be interested in listening to whatever he does. There’s a lot to like in this documentary. Withers is such a cool guy that listening to him BS with Dr. Cornel West or his old navy buddies is a joy. Hearing his thoughts on pop music in general is illuminating and unlike a lot of music documentaries I’ve seen, Still Bill actually increased my affection for Bill Withers.

Directors Damani Baker and Alex Vlack did a good job pacing Still Bill and eliciting candid responses from Withers. I’m definitely excited to see what the team’s next project is. Overall, Still Bill is a solid look at the life and career of Bill Withers with an eye towards possible future music. There’s a lot here to like for Withers fans.

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