When in the late ‘90s filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack first conceived of directing a documentary about music legend Bill Withers, they had a hard time finding even the most basic information on the man.
They also had a hard time finding Bill Withers.
The voice and composer behind some of popular music's most enduring, instantly recognizable songs — "Lean On Me," "Ain't No Sunshine," and "Lovely Day" to name but a few — Withers had retreated from the spotlight some twenty years before. And the relative anonymity he'd achieved since then suited him just fine.
"Most people think that fame is always the ultimate goal for any performer and he obviously achieved that," Baker notes, "but he was also very comfortable with not being stopped on the street and not being some kind of famous, touring icon into his seventies." Withers also wasn't crazy about two ambitious movie directors tracking him down, even if they were genuine fans (which they are) with an idea for a film.
Once they had an opportunity to meet with Withers, though, Baker and Vlask were able to not only receive his blessing, but in time they also earned his trust. "At some point [he realized] we weren't making something about Bill Withers being famous," Baker says. "It was more about Bill Withers, the very wise and brilliant person who also happens to be a father and a husband and all these other things that we thought, in the end, were far more interesting."
The completed production, named after Withers' 1972 sophomore album, is Still Bill.
What prompted you to examine him in the way that you did? It’s not a biography or an in-depth chronology of his career, but rather a profile of the man, now.
Alex Vlack: We spent some time with Bill and the more we got to know him — it didn’t take us too long to figure this out — we realized that it would be a shame if this film was essentially an historical piece about him. That what it needed to do was feel like, if you watched this movie, you’d walk away feeling like you’d hung out with him for an hour and a half. Being around him is to experience his humor and his wisdom and his eloquence. Those things are just so important and amazing. At the same time we wanted the film a little bit to mirror his own aesthetic. He’s a very simple songwriter. He’s a very simple lyricist. We didn’t want to crowd the film with an onslaught of biographical information. We wanted it to have its own simple, clear, kind-of-poetic message just the way that he does.