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Still Bill

tn_stillbillAfter all that EXPENDABLES business, how ’bout a musical interlude?

STILL BILL is a sweet, intimate reunion with Bill Withers, the great singer and songwriter known for songs like “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me” and “Just the Two of Us.” Withers has a great voice soaked in emotion, but what I love most about his music is his honest and down to earth lyrics that cover topics dear to his heart that aren’t usually covered by other singers. Take for example “Grandma’s Hands,” about his love and gratitude for everything his grandma did for him and others when he was growing up, and ultimately how much he misses her. Or “I Can’t Write Left Handed,” about a wounded war veteran. He had more on his mind than “baby I love you” type of business.

But part of the mystery of Bill Withers is his short career. He started in his 30s while building airplane toilets in a factory. Then after several years of great success he retired, and is rarely heard from these days. To be honest I thought he was dead until I heard an interview he did to promote this documentary last summer. I remember I was real sad about Michael Jackson dying but I thought shit, at least Bill Withers is alive again.

Somehow these filmatists got him to agree to an interview. Unlike Sly Stone, Gil Scott Heron or D’Angelo his disappearance doesn’t seem drug related. He just got folded into a major label when his independent one went under, and the type of corporate meddling that comes with that bothered him, so he quit.

mp_stillbillIn STILL BILL (taken from the name of his second album, by the way, don’t take it as some awkward KILL BILL reference) we catch up with Bill as a self-deprecating old man who says most people don’t recognize him because they never heard of him. (Maybe he should tell them he’s the guy who wrote the song that DMX covered in EXIT WOUNDS.) They do know him when he visits his home town in West Virginia, though. His childhood friend, from the only other black family in town at the time, is now the mayor. They talk about racism not being as bad for them as in many southern towns, but then when they go to find his family’s grave sites we see that the black cemetery is a broken down shambles covered in weeds, right next to a normal, well-maintained cemetery for the white people.

During that scene I noticed Bill stammer a little, and I wondered about it. Soon enough you learn that he had a really hard time with stuttering when he was growing up, and it was a major obstacle that nobody thought he’d ever overcome. He goes and visits a class for kids who stutter. They’ve been taught all about his music, he gives them some inspiration and they bring tears to his eyes.

Of course you wonder if he ever sings anymore. He has a room full of recording equipment but he claims not to know how to use it. Says he had planned to record some songs but only got around to tinkering. Later he’s talking with a couple of his friends, one of them being his neighbor Jim Brown (yes, the Jim Brown). Jim is talking about something he recently realized about his relationship with his father. This inspires Bill to dig out a recording of one of those songs he “tinkered” with. It was made years ago, but long after his last album, and it’s about pretty much what Jim was just talking about there. And it blows Jim’s mind that these things that he’s starting to understand as he gets older are things that Bill Withers already wrote unreleased songs about. Who knows how many songs full of wisdom he has squirrelled away somewhere? Jim Brown’ll just have to keep having these deep talks with him to bring them to the surface.

Alot goes on during the documentary, including a tribute concert to Bill and a decision to record again. You can see him getting the itch while talking about it. Not for fame or success, just for creating music. But to me the best part of the movie is his relationship with his daughter, who’s a singer. She tells a story about the first time she sang for him, and he gave her tough criticism, but she just needed him to be her dad and tell her he was proud. It’s the first chink in the Bill Wither sensitive guy armor.

Later in the movie Bill has her come in to his home studio so he can help her record her songs. We know that she’s terrified of his response. She plays keyboard and sings her heart out, and she’s good. Not taking from him at all, she’s doing her own thing. Is he going to like it? Will he even pretend to, or will he give her the James Earl Jones in BEST OF THE BEST tough coach routine? (Or the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei?)

He’s got his back to her, tinkering with the levels on the computer. When the song ends she hunches over with a nervous smile and hesitates to turn and look at him. Finally, he turns around, and for the first time we see that tears are streaming down his face. He fucking loved it, no faking. When he tries to say something he has a hard time. So articulate about feelings in his lyrics, now reduced to “I mean… you know what I mean.”

That moment alone makes this a great movie. That’s what you watch a documentary for, and what you listen to Bill Withers for: those little unplanned emotional life moments that capture some essential human truth. Also, the bass lines are pretty catchy.

I don’t think STILL BILL has been distributed widely, but if you’re interested you can get information, DVD or download from the official websight.

And here’s the trailer:

Still Bill Trailer from STILL BILL on Vimeo.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 12:30 pm and is filed under Documentary, Music, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Still Bill”

  1. I love me some Bill Withers. “Use Me” is probably one of the best songs ever made.

  2. Now this guy was exactly the kind of R & B I’ve always loved, the kind my mom played when I was growing up – the GOOD shit, not the (90%) crap that passes for R & B these days. I always wondered what happened to him and why he went away. Now I know. Thanks Vern; I absofuckinglutely cannot wait to check this out.

  3. i just met my brother’s newborn baby girl, so i’m in a sentimental mood, and some Bill would really hit the spot. i’ma hunt this sucker down. thanks Vern

  4. D’Angelo just decided to get fat and blow his money. I admire that cause he could’ve easily gone the R. Kelly route if he wanted to. He still occasionally pops back up, like on some Snoop record from a couple of years back.

    +’Justments is my favorite album by this man, who’s music though before my time is about as old as my soul. I connect a lot with Bill Withers because as you said he was honest with his work. It’s just universally poetic, great shit all around. I also didn’t even know this existed so thanks for the review Vern.

  5. I’ve wanted to see this since I first heard about it. Vern, you should check out the Tavis Smiley interview Bill did to promote this.

    FYI, the best song Withers wrote is “Hope She’ll Be Happier” and the best performance of this song can be seen in the documentary “Soul Power” (Vern reviewed it). check this out:
    http://vimeo.com/5383231

    FYI #2, fuck that DMX shit. The best hip-hop Withers cover is by Kid Frost and was used in American Me (one of my fave gangster flicks; truly underrated – Vern you should review if you haven’t). Check this out too:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q3R7kvhnhE

  6. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    August 17th, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Bill Withers, just a real nice guy who wrote some real nice music. Glad he’s not dead anymore.

  7. I gotta admit, I’m not much of a Bill Withers fan. He’s a great singer/songwriter, just not my particular cup of tea. But I am a sucker for documentaries with moments of real, heavy emotion; it really is a primary feature of a good documentary. Into the queue it goes.

    Another quality factor I look for in documentaries is a focused and detailed view of complicated historical events. I just watched “The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.” This is definitely worth checking out. It offers a crystal clear account of our country’s involvement in Vietnam, as well as a rich study of the truly exceptional and fascinating character that is Daniel Ellsberg.

  8. Well I haven’t seen this but Vern, you’ve convinced me to check it out. I’ve looked up what Bill Withers wrote, and I know / love so much of his stuff without ever associating it with him.

    By the way, I get the feeling that I’ll look extremely stupid here (like that’s never happened before), but what’s your latest avatar? It looks fiendishly familiar but somehow I just can’t place it.

  9. Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.

  10. Paul: That’s from the original cover of “Nothing Lasts Forever,” the book that DIE HARD was based on.

  11. Vern – Speaking of personalized music documentaries, you should definately check out THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN, recommended by more than one person around these sight parts more than once.

    Dig Duggler – Yeah I myself second “Most Dangerous Man.”

  12. How do you even begin to answer a question like Cornel West’s at the end of the trailer there? Even if you’re not an artist of unimpeachable honesty like Bill clearly is, even if you aren’t an artist at all…”what would you like your legacy to be?” Does anyone have an ounce of control over that? It’s no wonder Bill looks so uncomfortable pondering that question. I dunno, I’m not trying to say Dr. West is some kind of asshole for asking the question. I just feel it’s like writing your own epitaph before you’ve had a chance to say everything you’re capable of saying. Bill Withers has plenty more to say; there wouldn’t be a movie about him otherwise. I will, of course, end up watching this movie at some point, but I’m just wondering if he has some kind of answer to that.

    I would like to see Bill Withers show up for Tarantino’s alleged KILL BILL sequel, though. Picture that earthy purr coming out of the shadows: “Well, Kiddo…looks like it’s just the two of us.”

  13. Well, MattmanBegins, they can make it, if they try.

    And thanks for the review, Vern. I’ll check it out.

  14. Majestyk – so much for being “familiar” then, I’ve never actually read it. Although I do kinda like Die Hard.

    BTW I was watching “Under Siege 1” last night (yeah, I’ve been putting off “Kill Switch”, I’m a lazy ass) and reminded of how much more of a “Die Hard” picture this is than some of the “Die Hard” sequels. I’d forgotten how funny it was, especially in the first 45 minutes or so, as well. Much better than I remembered it.

    Anyway… *makes effort to at least pretend to remain on topic here…* Bill Withers. This one goes on my “stuff to check out” list.

  15. don’t forget Erika Eleniak’s tig ole bitties

  16. Griff – Erika Eleniak had breasts? I must have missed that.

  17. paul – They weren’t silicone. That shit ruined tits if you ask me.

  18. RRA – did you even live in the eighties, as a man? (I assume that you are a man. If you’re not, I apologise unreservedly.) There was nothing BUT silicone.

  19. Although, as an addenum, I was a very small child for most of the eighties so my knowledge there is based almost entirely on my uncle’s antique “Playboy” collection, which may not be the most objective source ever.

  20. Thanks Vern. I’d love to check out “Still Bill” some time. I’ve got one of Bill Withers CDs and grew up listening to his music. Use Me was one of my favorite songs too. I had a girlfriend who was exactly like that. :-)

  21. My comment on the Soul Power review has not been sufficient. I now hereby formally refer all of the above talkbackers to Soul Power.

    http://outlawvern.com/2010/01/06/soul-power/

    Vern put up some good shit ^^there^^.

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