I don’t think of Bill Withers very often, but whenever I encounter one of his songs from the early 1970s, I’m always glad to be reminded of him. He was one of the few black artists to crack the playlist of the AOR station I listened to in high school, and I vividly remember being impressed and moved when I first heard “Grandma’s Hands” on there. His other songs—“Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Lean on Me,” “Use Me Up”—were part of the sound track of my life back then. So I was delighted to be introduced to Still Bill (2009), a long-needed documentary on Withers. I was even more delighted to find it an excellent documentary—and Withers to be exactly the sort of person his songs had led me to imagine.
As filmmaking, this is hardly landmark stuff. It’s nicely done, but it is a fairly traditional assemblage of archive footage and interviews. This, however, suits the subject. It hardly prevents the scenes where Withers and the filmmakers travel to his hometown in West Virginia from providing a rare look at an artist’s origins in his own words. This part of the film alone is remarkable, offering unusual insight into Withers’ past (which clearly impacts his present)—and it also paints a very different view of West Virginia than we’re usually given. In the end, however, this is a film that rises or falls on its subject matter. In the case of Bill Withers, the subject matter is more than adequate for it to rise just fine.