Documentary, not rated, 88 minutes, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 3.5 chiles
Director Nick Mead’s documentary on Bruce Springsteen’s longtime saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, creates a tone of poignancy right from its opening credits. In an archival interview, Clemons — who died of complications from a stroke in 2011, after an early version of the film was already completed — tells of the loneliness of life on the road. “Thousands of people. Thousands of conversations. And I was alone.”
But Clemons found peace in being alone, and with it, a sense of freedom. Mead chose an interesting way to tell the story of a musician whose music touched the lives of millions of fans and whose large-than-life presence, which seemed at odds with a peaceful, easygoing, and generous nature, touched the lives of his many friends.
Clarence Clemons: Who Do You Think I Am? is a portrait that Mead skillfully develops over the course of the film with a clever mix of black-and-white and color photography. Most of the first half is monochromatic, with only occasional forays into color. The color takes over in the second half, as a more fully realized portrait of a man whose personal journey was akin to a spiritual search for meaning grows profound and revealing. It’s not a rock documentary; it goes way beyond the music.
The film includes interviews with Bill Clinton, Joe Walsh, Clemons’ family, his childhood friends, and of course, fellow E Street Band members. Clemons was among the original E Street lineup. He was the only black musician in an all-white band that played to mostly white audiences. But he wasn’t just playing with Springsteen to provide the occasional sax solo. As one commentator says, when Springsteen’s voice ran out, Clemons and his sax were there to pick up the story. He was essential.
The band dissolved in 1989, and Clemons took it hard. But by then, his reputation afforded him spots alongside other A-list bands and musicians. Clemons was married five times. His fifth wife, Victoria Clemons, survived him. The underlying theme of Mead’s film is about a man who had it all when it came to money, success, and adoration but knew that something was missing.
The film is most thoughtful and revealing when it covers a 2003 trip to China that Clemons embarked on in order to find himself. It was a life-changing event. He found solace in a blue-collar mining town that reminded him of his youth in Virginia. On tour, he was accustomed to being recognized and mobbed by the fans. In China, he was a stranger.
Mead could have made this something entirely different: a film about the man and his music. Instead, he chose to make it about Clemons’ inner life. In so doing, he tells a pensive, reflective, heart-driven story. If you didn’t love Clemons before, you’ll love him after seeing this.
Perhaps there is no need for a counterpoint to all the on-screen lauding. It’s sincere. Perhaps Clemons really was just born to greatness.
After Clemons’ death, Springsteen said, “Losing Clarence was like losing the rain.”