Gaga May Be Good, "Still Bill" Withers Is Great

"Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow.
Lean on me when you're not strong and I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on. For it won't be long 'til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on."
-- Lean On Me

In the age of "reality TV" that bears little resemblance to reality and a celebrity culture that idolizes artistic mediocrity, it is a rare joy to take in a movie that so elegantly captures the true-life story of a man who is a genuine artist. Still Bill is an extraordinary film about the 13th child born to a black family in a small coalmining village in West Virginia, who stuttered badly until he was 28, made toilets for a living, and then wrote and performed some songs you just may have heard of, among them, "Ain't No Sunshine", "Lean on Me", "Just The Two of Us" and "Use Me." This is the beautifully told story of Bill Withers.

"If it feels this good getting used, then you just keep on using me until you use me up." -- Use Me

Joni Mitchell sang that "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." That appears to be true when it comes to our artists, whose work we don't seem to most fully appreciate until after their death. Fortunately for us, the 71-year old Bill Withers is still kicking. And by sheer providence, two talented, young directors persevered for 10 years to produce this delicious 77-minute film so that we may celebrate Bill Withers while he is still very much alive. Surprisingly, Still Bill isn't as much about the artist as it is about a deeply insightful, soulful and humble man who overcame genuine adversity to achieve stardom, and then consciously chose to opt-out of the music business at the top of his game. He stopped recording in 1982. [***See my interview below with the award-winning filmmakers.]

"Ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
It's not warm when she's away.
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
and she's always gone
too long anytime she goes away."
-- Ain't No Sunshine

There are many reasons to see this touching and inspirational film, chief among them the poetic wisdom that flows effortlessly from the sage Withers. Whether you're an artist or creative person, a musician or music lover, or someone who has ever struggled with the source of your own motivation, Still Bill will make you laugh and might make you cry, but it will certainly make you reflect. As a parent, I'll be taking my kids to see this compelling, true story about a person who surmounted obstacles and played by his own rules. Perhaps they will also begin to appreciate, with all due respect to Lady Gaga's Poker Face, that only true quality endures.

"Just the two of us, we can make it if we try, just the two of us.
Just the two of us, building castles in the sky.
Just the two of us, you and I."
-- Just The Two of Us

Bill Withers was entirely wrong about one thing, though. There is a moment in the movie when he says, "Some people are born cool and others aren't. I just wasn't cool." How ironic. He is one of the coolest dudes imaginable, who offers such profound understanding, so simply stated, you should bring along a paper and pen when you go. You'll be thankful for seeing it. Better yet, spread the word.

I asked filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack about the movie and the man

RR/ Why Withers?

Damani: I wanted to know why I only had my father's vinyl copy of the 'Live at Carnegie Hall' album and two "best of" CD's and knew nothing about who created this music. In the beginning, it was like solving a mystery, why were these songs always in my head?

Alex: When you're a fan of his entire catalogue, you feel like you know him personally because his lyrics are so personal and touching. But there was almost no information about him out there--we started this before wikipedia and before he had his own web page.  The more we dug, the more we became curious. And to us, he's one of the most--if not the most--brilliant American musicians, and very few people have ever even heard his name.

RR/ It took almost 10 years to complete this project. What made you persist?
We were doing many other things as well of course, but this became a bit of an obsession. The more we spoke to people about the idea the more we got charged by their positive responses. Everyone has a Bill Withers song connected to some moment in their lives. Who didn't sing 'Lean on Me" at their high school graduation?  Who doesn't know "Ain't know Sunshine?" But do you even know what he looks like?

RR/ What surprised you about him?
His sense of humor is unbeatable. 
His ability to take complex ideas and redeliver them in the simplest and most poetic way is brilliant.
His patience with us, considering how annoying we were, stalking him for 6 years. 
The fact that he said yes.

RR/ What did you learn from the experience?
We learned that film school, jobs on TV shows, dealing with commercial clients--all of the years we've worked in the the film business combined mean nothing. Connecting with someone like Bill Withers is about respect, patience, and humility. These things can not be taught. 

RR/ What do you hope viewers take away from the film?
That they should be proud of the gifts they have to give, no matter who they are.

RR/ What do you know for sure?

It's no "Behind The Music".

--Robert Rosenthal

Here's an iTunes playlist:

"When I wake up in the morning, love
, and the sunlight hurts my eyes
, and something without warning, love
, bears heavy on my mind...
then I look at you
, and the world's alright with me
Just one look at you
 and I know it's gonna be
 a lovely day"
--Lovely Day