Monday, 19 October 2009
Yesterday, we saw an extraordinary new film about Bill Withers, Still Bill, as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Having led a fairly reclusive life since the late seventies, and now only giving the rarest of short performances, Mr Withers was completely disinterested in the project at first. The directors (Damani Baker and Alex Vlack) gave a short Q&A after the film and told us about their ten year mission of sheer will to make the film. But their persistence paid off. They made a remarkable film which, instead of telling the story of his music career and success, charts the man himself, what made him, and what he has become.
We see him leading a very ordinary life as his family's patriarch, visiting his home town (in rural Virginia, where his ancestors were enslaved), and visiting the graves of his father and brother, who are buried in a tangle of undergrowth beyond the well kept, 'white' part of the graveyard. We see him cry: at a fundraiser for stuttering kids (he is a stutterer), and as his daughter starts to record music. He has just turned seventy and the process of telling his story in the film seemed palpably cathartic to him. The directors said that Bill himself told them that their first five hour chat felt as though he was on the psychoanalyst's couch; at one point in the film he mentions that he is a depressive. The final result manages to touch the most personal depths of a man who has done his best to separate his life from the music business.
And all of this without really going into the genius of his music. That voice! I don't know about you, but I'm having a Bill Withers week.
[During the Q&A the directors said that Bill himself had been due to attend the screening! But he had to have a knee op. I would've dropped down dead, but hopefully not before blocking the exits and making him sing 'Grandma's Hands'. Get well soon, Bill. There is another screening at 1:30pm today at the National Film Theatre; if you're in the area, take a long lunch and go!]