June 17, 2010

Filmmakers Damani Baker & Alex Vlack on Bill Withers Documentary

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 composer and voice 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.

Among the most compelling moments in the film is when he’s recalling how the industry tried to sway him into doing all sorts of self-promotion—which he wasn’t too hip on, to say the least—like covering Elvis Presley
s In The Ghetto.

Damani Baker: He started late [in the music business]. By that time, [he’d] been in the Navy, grown up in a coal mining town, was very close to his grandmother, and had other pieces of a foundation that were solid. At the same time, in his lyrics [he wrote] not about being a simple person, but about the simplicity of his experience and his experience of being a human being who relates to his friends and his community and his family. I can only imagine what it would be like to be told, “You need to perform in a certain way.” Like, “Wait a minute, I know how build a house.”

“I wrote this song. You didn’t.”

Damani Baker: [Laughs] Yeah. “I wrote this song. You didn’t. And even if I hadn’t written this song and I wasn’t famous, I’d still be okay. I have skills.” He still jokes about how one of his favorite things to do now is to go to Home Depot for two hours and just pick up things. That’s who he is. I think that’s who he was when he started in the business too. It did blindside him a little bit. And he said, “Hey, I can also walk away from it and still be okay.”

Alex Vlack: The other part of it is that he’s essentially a completely untrained musician who is not very calculated in the way that he writes music. He’s a pretty pure artist. He jokes that if you look at most of his songs, they’re basically all the same fingering, like you just sort of slide the same fingering up and down the neck. He’s not very virtuosic. When we first met him he kept saying, “You know, I really don’t know how to play guitar and I really don’t know how to play piano.” And we just sort of laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s a joke. You’re Bill Withers. Of course you do.” [Laughs] So you put someone like that who’s a total natural talent—he’s not writing “Ain’t No Sunshine” because he’s trying to craft the perfect two-and-a-half-minute song so that it’ll become a huge number-one hit. He’s just writing it because it came out of him.—in the music industry and they’re making suggestions like he should do “In The Ghetto” or that he should have a horn section on this song or that he should go out there and dance to try to sell his music. It’s ridiculous to him. He’s not doing it for any of that.

There’s an underlying theme in the film, which you may not have anticipated becoming as prevalent as it did, of mortality. There’s that poignant moment when Cornell West asks Withers what he’d like his legacy to be.

Damani Baker: From that scene [with] Cornell West to [the one with] impromptu piano playing with his daughter, a lot of the answers to that question of ‘what do you want your legacy to be?’ or ‘where are you now in your life?’ you see it in these little, beautiful moments. So in a way, he’s kind of answering, “This is where I am,” without telling us that’s what he was doing. Our job was just to be quiet and watch.

Do you think Withers recognizes how indelible his contributions are to popular music? Do you think he gets it?

Alex Vlack: I think he gets it. He’s pretty humble, [but] he’s been honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he’s got Grammys. He tells one story about a woman who was rescued from a burning building and that as she was being carried out of the building someone was singing “Lean On Me” to her. She wrote him a letter saying how much it meant to her. I think that means more to Bill than anything. He’s happy when he hears that his songs mean something to people. I don’t think he thinks too much about his legacy or his place in American music.

Damani Baker: I don’t even think he really even looks back at his career. It was like this thing that he did. He appreciates what he’s done.

Did you ever get the sense that he wants some form of a comeback? If not the fame and celebrity element, did you get the sense that he misses what he used to do in some way?

Alex Vlack: Yeah, I think so. He does. It takes a lot of guts to be honest about your emotions and that’s what he’s always been really good at with his lyrics. He’s basically great at it in his life too. He’s very open about the fact that coming back out into the world puts him under all kinds of scrutiny that he’s been out of for a while. And he doesn’t necessarily feel like being a part of that. But there’s an undeniable love of music and making music — and Bill is always making music. He’s got piles and piles of unreleased tracks all the way from the ‘70s up until yesterday, as far as I know.