By pop music standards, singer-songwriter Bill Withers started his career late (he was in his early 30s), retired relatively early (in his mid-40s), and was never exactly prolific even during his active years. But as Still Bill
, a 2008 documentary, reminds us, Withers managed to turn out a catalogue that included several bona fide classics ("Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me," "Just the Two of Us") and a handful of others that aren't far behind ("Lovely Day," "Use Me," "Grandma's Hands")--and he did it all on his own terms. Born in tiny Slab Fork, West Virginia, Withers had served in the navy and was working for an aircraft manufacturer, building toilets for 747s, when he decided to try his hand at music in the early '70s. Despite having never played an instrument, written a tune, or sung in public, he did all right, to say the least; his first single was "Ain't No Sunshine," which won a Grammy and put him on TV with Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, and many others. His style was distinctive from the get-go; his songs, featuring funky beats and his own acoustic guitar and smart, simple lyrics delivered in a voice that was both gruff and sensitive, were blues-drenched but not R&B, soulful but not Soul, per se. More hits followed, but Withers hasn't released anything since 1985 (although we do see him collaborating with Cuban musician Raúl Midón and puttering around in a home studio filled with fancy high-tech equipment that he confesses he barely knows how to operate). Part of that is due to his unwillingness to let anyone, especially the meddling white record company execs he refers to as "blaxperts," tell him what to do. But mostly, Withers simply wasn't driven to keep working and performing; music didn't define him, and as we see him today (he turned 70 during production of the documentary), he seems completely relaxed and at ease with his decision. Various friends and admirers, from Sting and Angélique Kidjo to Tavis Smiley, philosopher-author-activist Cornel West, and sports legends Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Bernie Casey (the latter are seen in one of the bonus features), talk to and about Withers; we also hear from daughter Kori, herself a musician. But in the end it's all about the music, and the best bits are the generous live performances, many from TV appearances back in the day, in which Withers performs his songs. It's a safe bet that anyone who doesn't already own this music will be hitting the nearest download button after watching this delightful film. --Sam Graham
STILL BILL is an intimate portrait of soul legend Bill Withers, best known for his classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean On Me,” “Lovely Day,” “Grandma’s Hands,” and “Just the Two of Us.” With his soulful delivery and warm, heartfelt sincerity, Withers has written the songs that continue to resonate deeply within the fabric of our times. Filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack follow Withers and offer a unique and rare look inside the world of this fascinating man. Through concert footage, journeys to his birthplace, interviews with music and sports legends, his family and closest friends, STILL BILL presents the story of an artist who has written some of the most beloved songs in our time and who truly understands the heart and soul of a man.
DVD Features: Deleted Interviews; Musical Performances of hit Bill Withers songs “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Yim Yames and “Who Is He and What Is He To You” by Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover