Docurama // 2010 // 76 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 3rd, 2011
The story of an artist who truly understands the heart and soul of a man.
A lot of people have forgotten about Bill Withers. During the '70s and '80s, Withers' smooth, understated, graceful melodies were an integral part of the popular music scene. You're familiar with his work, even if you don't quite remember his name. Consider that he gave us "Lean on Me," "Lovely Day," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Just the Two of Us" and "Use Me," among many others. After a couple of decades, Withers faded away, as so many musicians do. What happened?
Nothing. Nothing happened. Everything's fine. Bill just got tired of it and decided to retire. His singing voice is still in excellent shape, he's happy, healthy, wealthy and wise, but he didn't feel any need to continue attempting to remain a relevant part of the music scene any longer than people really wanted him to. "I guess I'm like the pennies in your pocket," he says. "I'm there, but I'm easy to forget about."
His story is remarkable in how unremarkable it is. How many documentaries and biopics have we seen about musicians who burned out and crashed in some spectacularly tragic way? How many once-great performers have we seen attempting to milk every last ounce of their fame until they're eventually reduced to croaking out the old hits people actually know in front of small crowds in low-rent auditoriums? Withers had a very fine career, made some great songs and then decided to gracefully bow out after dealing with frustrating suggestions from foolish studio executives (one wanted him to cover Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto").
Despite the slight decline in success in the later portion of his career (he still had a few minor hits during this era, plus the big hit "Just the Two of Us"), Withers certainly wasn't forced out of the music business. He could have kept recording albums. He could have used his reputation and prestige to work his way into collaborations with other successful artists. He could have compiled his very respectable collection of greatest hits and simply toured the country performing the familiar songs everyone loved to hear. But no, Withers knew his time had concluded, and he wasn't interested in going to any special effort to make sure his name remained a part of the music scene.
Withers wrote simple, straightforward, lovely music, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that he is a simple, straightforward, lovely guy. Withers has no pretensions of being regarded as anything other than a decent singer/songwriter, suggesting at one point that people tend to needlessly inflate the importance of entertainers. Dr. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley (both thoughtful intellectuals, to be sure) sit down with Withers and attempt to philosophize on the importance of his life and music. Withers responds to their lofty questions with charmingly down-to-earth answers: when asked if he's bothered by accusations of being a sell-out, Withers replies, "When you're doing a concert, having the words 'sold out' above the door is usually a good thing."
Part of what seems to inform Withers' own life philosophy seems to be the fact that he built a career for himself out of nothing. Withers had a career working on toilets for military planes, sang a little bit in some nightclubs on the side, wrote a few songs, landed a spot on the Johnny Carson show and took off from there. In keeping with that, Withers adopts the old "pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make something of yourself" approach when giving advice to others.
Withers also overcame the hurdle of stuttering when he was a child, and now spends a good deal of time working to help children who struggle with the same challenge. He's not a particularly sentimental guy, but we see Withers weep at two points late in the film: the first instance is when he speaks to the aforementioned kids and encourages them in their ongoing quest to overcome their speech impediment. The second is when he hears his daughter turn in a beautiful performance of a new song she's written. These moments are powerful, largely because we've picked up on the idea that Withers isn't one who displays emotion on a regular basis.
If filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack don't quite succeed in their attempts to expound upon the greatness of Bill Withers, they succeed very admirably in capturing his distinctive serenity. After all these years, he's still happy and none the worse for wear. Basically, he's Still Bill. That would be a dull revelation for many documentary subjects, but in the music business, figures like Bill Withers are all too rare.
The DVD transfer is handsome, offering sharp detail during the new interview sequences and presenting a series of archival clips which understandably vary in quality. Audio is solid, with a steady stream of familiar Withers tunes underscoring what is otherwise frequently a talking-heads affair. Supplements include 10 minutes of bonus interviews (featuring Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Graham Nash, Bernie Casey and Ernie Barnes), 3 tribute performances from Corey Glover, The Swell Season and Yim Yames, plus text-only filmmaker bios.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 76 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Performances
* AllMusic: Bill Withers