Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Early in this documentary ‘Still Bill’, legendary singer / songwriter Bill Withers refers to himself as ‘The pennies in your pocket’, saying something along the lines of ‘you know they’re there, but you don’t think about them’. He is so right about that. I’ve cherished the music of Bill Withers for pretty much my entire life without knowing, or even being concerned to know anything about the man. When I saw this documentary centering on the life of Bill Withers, I was more curious than anything because for whatever reason Bill Withers has just always been there. I wasn’t even fully aware that he had retired from the music business back in 1985 because the body of work he gave us before he shut it down has managed to completely sustain us. I am a fan and always will be. That being said, Directors Damani Baker and Alex Vlack have gone through the glorious trouble of introducing me to Bill Withers for the very first time.

We can tell you right off the bat that this movie isn’t about the music of Bill Withers, at least not exclusively. There will not be a lot of anecdotes on how he came up with a lot of his great songs, though we will be able to figure a lot of these things out for ourselves by simply listening to what he has to say, but this is a movie about his life. Mr. Withers, who is the same age as my dad and looking mighty resplendent dressed in all white, regales of tales of being raised in Stab Fork West Virginia. There has to be a story behind naming a place Stab Fork but Mr. Withers doesn’t know that story. He does tell the story of his affection for his grandmother who was instrumental in developing who he is today and was the inspiration for ‘Grandma’s Hands’, and just so you know that the movie isn’t completely devoid of anecdotal bits, he tells a captive Tavis Smiley and Cornell West that there was no woman in particular in his song ‘Use Me’ because while making three dollars an hour, nobody was all that willing to use him up. Sadly, I can relate to that.

The filmmakers tag along with Bill Withers as he visits with old army buddies, goes to a high school reunion, visits and old friend back in Stab Fork complete with those stories that old dudes love tell. Usually they tell these same stories over and over again,

but out of respect we pretend as if it’s the first time we’ve heard it. We are privileged to tagalong at a Bill Withers appreciation concert where he surprisingly gets on stage for a minute and he also goes to receive an honorary award for children suffering from speech impediments, with considerable time spent describing Mr. Withers own childhood growing up with a debilitating stutter himself, the emotional baggage of which clearly having a profound effect on him even today at the age of seventy.

I imagine one of the questions we would like answered is simply ‘where did he go’, with the simple answer being that he didn’t go anywhere. He’s right over there, at his home, in his studio doing whatever he feels like doing on that particular day. He mentioned somewhat briefly about the difficulty he had with certain record labels, how they wanted to change his sound, things they asked him to do which were insulting to him, how they wanted to tinker with his look… and there was one brief scene during one of the conversations of Bill Withers performing on a television show that looked suspiciously like ‘Solid Gold’ with Mr. Withers wearing what looked to be sequined jacket, complete with fog machine effects and dancing girls in the background. I don’t know what song he was singing because the audio wasn’t accompanying that clip, but that vision was so ‘not’ Bill Withers that I imagine his retirement from the business wasn’t long after that.

The part of the film that I probably enjoyed the most was the section that focused on his relationship with his daughter Kori, a beautiful young woman with an even more beautiful voice and the relationship she has with her father. I suppose being a singer / songwriter and having Bill Withers as a father does have its challenges as she mentions how critical he could be of some of her work when encouragement might’ve been the preferred order of the day, but then a little later we see father and daughter working on a song and the reaction from Mr. Withers was as if was hearing his little girl for the first time, and it was very emotional for him and a very powerful scene for us to witness.

On the surface there’s nothing particularly amazing about the Bill Withers Story. Some forty years ago he met a pretty a girl, married the pretty girl, had a couple of kids and they are still married today. He eased into the business in the early seventies, had a bunch of big hits but was arguably the most unassuming recording star ever, then voluntarily eased his way out of the business. There’s hardly anything there that would make for a good dramatic movie as opposed to the lives of say Billie Holiday or Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. But just like when my old man gets with his friends and these seemingly ordinary old guys start telling these stories, all of the sudden everything becomes extraordinary and you’re hanging on every word. I don’t know how they do it. And this is what we have with ‘Still Bill’, the extraordinary life of a seemingly ordinary man told in style that has you hanging on every extraordinary word. And ‘Lovely Day’ is a perfect song. I had to throw that in there somewhere.

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