Eight years ago, filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack had what
seemed like a simple idea: make a film about Bill Withers. Little was
known about Withers since hed left the business of music behind, and his
music, which includes the classics Aint No Sunhine, Lean On Me, and
Just the Two of Us, had left its mark on the world in general and these
two filmmakers in particular. But they soon found that access to Withers
was not freely granted, and that many doors would open, only to slam back
shut. With such limited access, their attentions shifted to trying to
produce a concert of his music, which would provide a narrative thread for
a discussion of his influence. For while his songs are part of the American
fabric, his name is not well known.
Then things changed. His door cracked slightly open. First, a four-hour
interview. Then a trip to his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia, the
place to which he swore hed never return. Four hours became forty.
Forty is now three hundred hours, filmed over two yearsa personal
journey into the life of a complex, fascinating, and profound man.
No one knows why someone of such enormous talent left the business; the
answer, it turns out, lies in Slab Fork. As a child, he was a small,
asthmatic, stutterer. He was bullied and ignored by girls. His greatest
influence was the woman he would immortalize later with the classic
Grandmas Hands: Grandma Galloway, who nurtured him and let him
know that he had a gift, and that once he went out into the world, people
would appreciate what he had to offer.
His ticket out of town was the Navy, where he spent nine years before
ending up with odd jobs in California as a clerk at IBM, a milkman, and a
mechanic installing toilets on airplanes. He sang to himself in the shower
and wrote songs on a guitar hed borrowed from his sister. People started
telling him they liked what they heard, and he made a demo. Shortly
afterward he was signed to Sussex Records, where he recorded his first
record after his day shifts at McDonnell-Douglass. Then, Aint No
Sunshine rose to the top of the charts, and he followed it with a string of
hits, tours, and television appearances.
The music business, however, is not always the most nurturing place, and
when Sussex folded and Withers went to a major label, he grew frustrated
with a new set of twisted expectations. But Withers wasnt like most
stars, whose lives are defined by fame. Hed come to music late in life,
after learning how to be a man on his own terms. And when he saw a
corrupt and unfulfilling life of entertainment on the one hand, and his new
family on the other, the choice was clear. It was more important to be a
husband and a father than a hitmaker.
For nearly a quarter of a century, Withers has lived a simple life, raising
his children with his wife in Los Angeles. His son, who has Aspergers
syndrome, is just starting law school; and his daughter, whose own dreams
of being a singer and songwriter have been overshadowed by the legend of
her father, has started to come out of her shell with a clear and resonant
voice. Withers nurtures them both, as his grandmother nurtured him.
And when Dr. Cornel West asks him what hed like his legacy to be, the
answer lies with them.
Through interviews with Dr. Cornel West, Sting, Angelique Kidjo, Jim
James of My Morning Jacket, Withers family and his oldest friends, and
through countless hours of Withers living a full and contemplative life, the
film presents a man who in his seventieth year continues to bring a rich
understanding of the heart and soul of a man.
251 S. Main Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
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