(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

DVD review - Still Bill (2010)

Like any movie, a documentary has a story arc. In Still Bill, the focus is on the talented Bill Withers dealing with detachment and his journey to reconnecting, both with music and his past. The story line is compelling, but it misses the point that Bill Withers is already incredibly grounded. His insight into himself and his times are both deeply personal and universal.

Bill Withers was an unlikely star: he came from a small coal mining town in West Virginia, he was already in his 30s, and he was working in a factory when his music took off. Right off the bat, he had a breakaway hit with Ain't No Sunshine in 1971. Grandma's Hands from the same album was also a strong single. The title of that first album, Just as I Am, was fitting. In Still Bill, we're treated to bits of interviews from this period, where he proved to be self deprecating, witty, and thoroughly comfortable in his own skin.

This confident character is one he developed on his own, overcoming a stuttering problem and escaping his small town life by joining the Navy. The filmmakers, Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, use an interesting technique for introducing us to Withers. They edit the footage and voice overs so that it's often hard to tell whether a particular quote is coming from the younger man or the older one. Both men are genuinely interesting people, less interested in fulfilling a stereotype than staying true to a personal ideal.

All the favorite songs get their due, from Lean On Me to Use Me to Just the Two of Us. But Still Bill also spends a lot of time showing a view of Withers' life today. Vlack and Baker lay the groundwork for that story arc with quotes from Withers, like:
I have to be careful that I don't just wallow in my own comfort. Probably now, I'm trying to find some motivation. I'm not lazy. I don't even understand. I'm trying to give myself a chance to get driven. Where just the sheer activity of doing something just jacks you up, makes you excited.
or the even starker:
Thoreau said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. I would like to know how it feels for my desperation to get louder.
Along with this, they follow him back to his hometown in West Virginia, as well as introducing his wife and two children. This makes it clear: Withers may have detached himself from the music business, but you can see the results of the energy he's put into his family. There are also some great snippets from a filmed conversation between Bill, Dr. Cornell West (civil rights activist), and Tavis Smiley (talk show host/commentator). The most powerful insight into Bill Withers, though, comes with his visit to the Our Time Theatre Company, a theatre troupe for young people that stutter. He talks with the kids and shares his experiences and lessons learned: "If you can value the people who value you..." Seeing his emotional reaction is moving.

The close of the story arc includes a recording session with Raul Midón, Bill recording his daughter, Kori, play a song she's been working on, and finally, Bill sitting in with guitarist Cornell Dupree at a 2008 tribute concert.

Despite these emotional moments, Bill Withers is more interesting than a simple story of reconnection. His depth comes because he's always been connected to himself. I'll close with my favorite quote, even though it's gotten plenty of play already:
One of the things I tell my kids is that it's okay to head out for "wonderful." But on your way to "wonderful", you're going to have to pass through "all right." And when you get to "all right", take a good look around and get used to it because that may be as far as you're going to go.
Complement Still Bill with a full bodied Burgundy when you watch it.

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