Bill Wither’s Desperation Gets Loud in new documentary
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” muses music legend Bill Withers in the new documentary; Still Bill. “I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.”
The 70 year old master songwriter can casually quote Thoreau and sound like a complete rock star in the same breath. The documentary, whose name is taken from the title of the subject’s classic 1972 sophmore album, chronicles an amazing artist at a turning point in his life and creativity. Filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack gained access to the life of the unlikely superstar who turned his back on the music industry in 1985. Together, they have created a touching and empowering portrait of a man most know little about, but whose music has been a part of all our lives.
Withers’ honest lyrics and hummable melodies are easily as fundamental to American music (and by extension popular music of the world) as that of The Beatles or Bob Dylan, with a deep soulfulness that reaches the listeners heart in a way unmatched by either. In Still Bill, the filmmakers have captured the feel of many Bill Withers’ songs; heart-warming and down to earth with just a touch of sadness. Classic performance footage from the 1970s and 80s is interspersed with brand new interviews, current footage of Withers with his family and performances from a 2008 tribute show featuring Cornell Dupree and Corey Glover, among others.
Withers himself is a fascinating subject. A uniquely gifted vocalist, musician and songwriter, Withers did not enter the music business until his early 30s. In an excerpt from a 1970s television interview, he even suggests that he hadn’t owned a guitar until shortly before recording his first record. Instead he honed his craft, weaving tales and humming melodies while installing toilets on 747s. When he did become interested in pursuing music as a career, he was determined to do things on his own terms. Shying away from conventional Rhythm and Blues formula with horns and female backing vocalists, Withers wanted to make a “quiet” record. His conviction (and persistence) paid off and he eventually recorded Just As I Am, produced by Stax legend Booker T. Jones. Trials and tribulations in the music industry eventually persuaded Withers to leave the music business all together and simply “do something else.”
Still Bill is loaded with rarely seen performances and photography from the 70s and 80s, but it’s not the archival footage or even the live performances from the 2008 Tribute show (remarkable as they are) that make this film so moving and inspiring. It’s the current material following Withers in his daily life that is sure to surprise and rivet audiences. Witnessing Withers return to his hometown of Slabfork, West Virginia for the first time in decades, searching a disgracefully overgrown cemetery for his brother and father’s graves, waxing poetic on the subject of “selling out” (leaving both Cornel West and Tavis Smiley at a loss for words) or being brought to tears while recording his daughter Kori’s original composition ‘Blue Blues’; these are the moments will have the viewer spellbound.
The unassuming highlight of the film (in your humble writer’s opinion) finds Withers and daughter Kori (an extraordinary vocalist and songstress in her own right) in a hotel lobby singing through a previously unheard song, ‘A Telephone Call Away.’ Withers’ pensive piano work and perfectly unpretentious lyrics resonate in the acoustics of the rooms vaulted ceiling. The song reaches it’s climax when Kori Withers joins in for a down right, gut-bucket yet effortlessly beautiful bridge. This song has recently seen release on George Benson’s latest Songs and Stories as a duet with the deep and dulcet-toned Lalah Hathaway. While the song’s beauty is still undeniable, for me, you can’t beat Bill and Kori Withers in a hotel lobby on a quiet afternoon.
Still Bill is as much about the future as it is the past. As Withers suggests when expounding on Thoreau, he has been itching to make more music. We get just enough of a glimpse of what this might sound like in the film to set us on the edge of our seats.
Bill Withers is a man who can sing a line with a simple poignance only matched, perhaps, by a B.B. King guitar solo. He has made beautiful records that could not have been made by anyone else or at any other time and his absence has left a gap in the music world. As the entertainment industry changes and audiences are craving honest music more and more over flash and production, Withers could be the perfect artist to emerge once again, on his own terms. For my money, he could cut a whole album in that hotel lobby with one mic and only his daughter to back him up.
Find Still Bill when it comes to a theater near you and be on the look out for new music from Bill Withers in some fashion. Until then…
Live Well and Listen Closely,
required listening: Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall
London, October 17,18 and 19
NYC, October 20
Toronto, October 23
For more info: www.stillbillthemovie.com www.billwithersmusic.com
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
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