Tuesday Morning Review “Still Bill”

Tuesday Morning Review:

Still Bill
2009 NR 76 minutes

Back to a documentary. My favored genre of film making. I guess it’s the journalistic roots in me that like a true story, well told. I also like thinking about the myriad of choices that the film-maker has to make while working on one of these. Shooting, lighting, editing, music. God! No wonder it takes so much money and time to make a movie.

Two years or so ago an acquaintance sat me down for lunch. He is a film-maker and has done a couple of releases, none that has risen above the noise level. He is actually very talented. He had sent me the script which I thought was pretty good. In my naivety I thought he wanted me to work on the script with him. What he wanted was $3,000 for the movie, no possibility of payback. Never saw the movie come out so I am guessing that the loss of my $3k was the tipping point. Oh well.

I tell that story because I thought about the fine line between success and failure, not only in making films but in any career in the arts. Sometimes all it takes is a little push, and sometimes that push never comes. In other cases the push comes to shove. That is the story of Bill Withers, deftly told in “Still Bill.”

If you don’t remember Bill Withers that’s not surprising. He made music from about 1970 for 15 years or so with some pretty big hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”, “Lovely Day”, and “Grandma’s Hands” to name a few) but pop music is nothing if not disposable and Bill dripped off the radar in the late 1970’s. I say dripped because he did surface now and again but the man had made a conscious decision to get away and did just that for the most part.

The film shows Withers at all stages of his career and it’s almost funny to see the star making machinery behind the popular songs at work on the laconic almost indifferent man. Some of the venues he played in seem so out of place, go-go dancers behind him in ridiculous contrast to a sensitive performer who can move the audience to tears.

It’s never clear what the music industry did to Withers. In the film there are vague references and it’s clear that he has no love for the business. A funny scene is where he tells of being dismissive about the input from a “White-boy” consultant in how to make his music more appealing to blacks. Legal disputes are cited in most bio’s and having been close to the industry I can imagine what was the crux of the matter. Greedy record company moves are legend. Just ask John Fogerty.

Withers certainly could have been bitter and his walk away shows how clearly unhappy he was but you get the sense that he is well satisfied with his life post big time. But as the film unfolds with flashbacks and scenes of him in his state of the art studio, recording with his daughter you can see a certain longing. Withers wants to show his music to the world again. The native of Slab Fork West Virgina is 72 now. The chances of a comeback are not even in the cards and he knows it. But he has a need to make music and if we are lucky we may get to hear it.

If nothing else this film shows a man who stood by his art, traded it all for his life and remains standing proud and unbent.

The Rant D’Jour features a guest appearance by The Door’s lead singer, the late Jim Morrison.

I used to be impatient. Now I have become obsessed with how long things take. Being impatient suggests…more


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About James Rising

A recovering radio addict wrestles with the written word.
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