Big Smash! Music Scene presents:
Saturday, November 21 at 7:00pm
Upstairs at Aqua Books
274 Garry St.
Admission by donation!
Whatever happened to Bill Withers? Filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack made a decision eight years ago to find the answer. After dealing with some initial resistance, they found that Bill Withers was willing to open up to them. Still Bill, the final result of their collaboration, focuses on the life of the singer-songwriter, whose catalog includes such hits as Ain’t No Sunshine, Use Me, Lean on Me and Just the Two of Us. The documentary follows Withers to his birthplace of Slab Fork, West Virginia and to New York City, where a concert is given in his honor, but is mainly focused on Withers’ life in Los Angeles, where he resides with his family. Withers grew up an asthmatic stutterer, which led to some self-esteem/self-worth issues that he still deals with. Before he burst into the world of music, Withers spent time working in a factory and seemed to have no real hankering for fame. Perhaps that is why it wasn’t too difficult for him to stop releasing albums after his lousy experience with a big-name record label.
The documentary weaves together concert footage, as well as Withers’ past and current music, while Withers recounts his experiences in the business and why he gave it up (he hasn’t put out an album in over 20 years). Featuring appearances by Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), Sting, and family friends, the film strives to shed some light on Bill Withers in his 70th year.
– Kier-La Janisse
From UPTOWN Magazine November 19, 2009:
Back in the spotlight
Singer/songwriter Bill Withers – the reclusive genius who penned such classic songs as Lean on Me – is the focus of a new documentary
Soulful singer/songwriter Bill Withers hasn’t really been seen much since 1988, when he effectively stopped recording music (at least for the public) and playing the fame game.
With his legacy in place thanks to eight acclaimed albums and such famed, oft-covered songs as Lean On Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Use Me, Just The Two of Us and Lovely Day – which still earn him handsome royalties – it didn’t look like Withers, now over 70, would ever feel the need to step into the spotlight again.
But thanks to some convincing from filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, he did. Still Bill lets audiences in on what Withers has been up to over the last 20 years, and takes admirers back to his roots in the once-segregated, hole-in-the-wall town known as Slab Fork, W. Va.
Baker and Vlack recently spoke with Uptown during a conference call from New York.
Uptown: Is it true it took close to 11 years to make Still Bill?
Vlack: I think it’s just actually under 10 years, technically.
If you do the math, it was five or six years before shooting, trying to find him, figure out a way of getting a foot in the door. And when we weren’t really getting our foot in the door, we started looking at alternative ways of making this project happen.
We were going to make a hybrid – a concert film (of a performance at Celebrate Brooklyn!, a free, outdoor performing arts festival in New York City) along with interviews from those that he’s influenced.
We first met Bill when we went out to California to get his blessing to film it. We suddenly discovered that there was this incredible guy – he wasn’t just this figure with an amazing career and music that we loved, but also a very funny, wise, and eloquent and interesting guy.
Bill spoke to us for four hours on that first meeting, and we left there thinking, “My God, we have to figure out how to, at least, get one tiny 20-minute interview with him.”
Baker: Both of us thought we were two of the luckiest guys in the world. We had this amazing opportunity to tell his story but, at the same time, very little control over how the story was going to be told.
It took so many years to make, but those moments were totally unpredictable. Bill does everything on his terms and so for us, as directors, it doesn’t matter if we show up with a wish list thinking, “We need this to tell our story and we need this for the narrative points.”
Has Bill seen the film? How has he reacted?
Vlack: He just saw it with an audience this summer and that, to add to the highlight list, was huge for us. I’d imagine it was tough, as it’s a film where he’s incredibly vulnerable and open, and his heart is all over the project. I just couldn’t imagine watching yourself for almost an hour and a half in a room full of strangers.
Baker: He came to an event we put together at the Grammy Museum and he was really moved by the response of the crowd, because he is that vulnerable and open person that people respond to.
After everyone finishes singing and clapping to the songs they all love, they get a chance to really meet someone.
– Aaron Graham