Movie Review: Bill Withers' "Still Bill"

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    Bill withersIt's hard to imagine popular music without the indelible imprint created by singer, songwriter and musician Bill Withers. With his rich, gravelly baritone, Mr. Withers turned straightforward songs like "Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me" and "Lovely Day" into modern classics that chronicle the journey we all take to live and to love. And while the lyrics have been covered and sampled by countless artists, the man who's created them has largely remained a mystery---until now.
    Bill withers But thanks to the illuminating documentary, Still Bill, which had its debut screening at Dallas' Studio Movie Grill on Thursday night and benefitted the Women Called Moses Coalition and Outreach Organization (which assists victims of domestic violence), fans wondering what moved and motivated the music learn about his humble beginnings, his surprising ascent to superstardom and why he's not exactly keen on returning to the glare of the spotlight.

    In just under an hour and a half, Mr. Withers takes viewers all the way to the rural Slab Fork, WV., where he lived as the youngest of 13 children. Being an asthmatic who stuttered, he was ridiculed from an early age ("A teacher once told me ‘you can't do nothin'. It created a crisis of confidence.") and left for the Navy at age 17, where he served for nearly a decade before taking a job installing aircraft toilets, writing songs along the way while he saved the money to record demos. In spite of being told he was "too old to be just beginning," the then-32-year-old moved to Los Angeles and and literally struck gold with his debut smash, "Ain't No Sunshine." In spite of eschewing the "R&B Syndrome of three chicks and the gold l`ame suits, that wasn't for me," Mr. Withers once found himself torn between returning to work on the aircrafts after a layoff or appearing on the Johnny Carson Show. Luckily for us, he chose the latter, and the hits kept on coming ("Grandma's Hands," "Use Me," Lean on Me").  At one point, the mellow yet witty performer (who drops priceless gems of wisdom throughout the film) sums up the sudden sex appeal he seemed to garner overnight: "I started hearin' words never applied to me before, like ‘handsome.' You sure get better-lookin' when you get a hit record, don't you?"

    But as he made the hits, Mr. Withers took them as well: taxes, a collapsed record label, then being fed to the music machine at a bigger label that tried to change his style. But in the midst of the drama, Mr. Withers married, had a son and a daughter and lived his life. The cameras follow him doing just that, whether he's sharing industry observations with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West, composing a song on the fly with jazz musician Raul Midon or just reminiscing about his grandmother "getting happy" singing spontaneous church spirituals back home. Mr. Withers is comfortable in his skin and with his current station in life, content to serve as a husband, father, mentor and friend as well as an inspirational musician.

    While the film could've elaborated more on the mainstream impact of his music (he's been covered countless times and been sampled by hip-hop as well), Still Bill is a well-rounded and fascinating glimpse into the life of a man who continues to uplift and inspire, with or without being at center stage. 

    By Melody Charles