Review: ‘Still Bill’

Seductively low-key docu "Still Bill" finds the musician, at 70, little changed.

As steadfast as the smooth grooves and eloquent lyrics Bill Withers ceased sharing with the world nearly a quarter-century ago, seductively low-key docu “Still Bill” finds the full-time family man and natural musician, at 70, little changed. Fans curious to see how time has treated the smooth voice that made “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Use Me” and “Just the Two of Us” distinctive hits back in the day will buoy the item to strong tube sales and mellifluous DVD life.

“I’m probably a little manic depressive,” Withers admits, though available evidence suggests otherwise. Ensconced with wife Marcia, son Todd and musician daughter Kori in his hillside mansion overlooking Los Angeles, he reveals his dissatisfaction with the fame game and recalls one particular record company executive — “blaxperts,” he calls them — suggesting he cover Elvis Presley’s then-popular “In the Ghetto.”

By then Withers, a childhood stutterer who moved from the tiny hamlet of Slab Fork, W.Va, to a stint in the Navy, was composing part-time while building 747 aircraft toilets on an assembly line. While he admits that he never owned a guitar until 1970, his stripped-down soul sound is immediately recognizable, and more distinctive for the absence of production and performance flourishes used by other acts of the day.

Now, from a kitted-out basement recording studio (which he ponders, with typical sangfroid, how to work), Withers explains his long absence from the public eye by confessing, “I’m trying to give myself a chance to get driven.”

Openly weeping while addressing adolescent stutterers and later as Kori sings an original composition, he validates a sentiment that would, from most other well-to-do retired singers, seem disingenuous: “The most important thing is to be OK.”

Helmers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack first had the idea to film the singer eight years ago, logging 300 hours of Withers’ down-home wisdom over a two-year shoot. They follow him to his hometown, a reunion with Navy buddies, and — in the only contempo perf in the doc — a performance of the luminous “Grandma’s Hands” with guitarist Cornell Dupree at the August 2008 Bill Withers Project, organized by music producer Hal Willner in Brooklyn.

Tech package perfectly presents its subject. The helmers dedicate the pic to their grandmothers.

Still Bill

Production

A Late Night and Weekends presentation of a Slab Fork Films production. Produced by Damani Baker, Alex Vlack, Jon Fine. Executive producers, Alex Vlack, Andrew Zuckerman. Directed by Damani Baker, Alex Vlack.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Baker, Jon Fine, Edward Marritz; editors, Fine, Sakae Ishikawa; music, Bill Withers; sound engineer, Alan Barker. Reviewed on DVD, Sydney, Australia, June 3, 2009. (In Silverdocs Film Festival, Silver Spring, Md. -- competing; SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Bill Withers, Kori Withers, Marcia Withers, Todd Withers, Clarence Avant, Benorce Blackmon, James Gadson, Terrell Harrison, Angelique Kidjo, Jim James, Mervin Johnson, Ralph MacDonald, Raul Midon, Tavis Smiley, Sting, C.V. Thompson, Cornel West.

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