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Clarence Clemons: Who Do I think I am?

Doug Collette By

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Clarence Clemons
Who Do I Think I Am?
MVD/Virgil Films
2019

It's difficult if not impossible to become enraptured watching the late Clarence Clemons' biopic/documentary Who Do I Think I Am? . But as with an autobiography Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (Grand Central Publishing, 2009), that delivered mere flashes of self-awareness, the rhapsodic sensation is unfortunately fleeting.

It takes roughly half the ninety-minute running time of Who Do I Think I Am? to reach what on the label copy of the Blu-ray/DVD combo package is described as the film's main premise, that is, the 'Big Man''s sabbatical in China at the end of a tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band in 2003. Up to that point, the film, co-produced tellingly by Clemons himself with director/photographer Nick Mead, is largely a series of adulatory snippets of interviews with family, friends, bandmates and fans ('The Boss' himself is notably missing). Former President Bill Clinton and musician Nils Lofgren are the exceptions to that prevailing starstruck tone, the former because he's the only one with a greater public profile and persona than Clemons and the latter because he was a peer as a member of the E Street Band since 1984 (the playing of his song, "Miss You C," is a touching coup de grace for the film as it plays over the credits).

The resulting narrative forms an over-arching and mostly successful effort to depict Clarence Clemons as much more than just the good-natured, larger than life figure he became through his work with 'The Boss.' But it is not an altogether flattering portrait: its creation requires rationalizing the man's foibles—abject materialism and other manifestations of an over-sized ego—in the context of the spiritualism that is the overriding theme of Who Do I Think I Am?. As such, it hardly masks the self-absorption of its subject: why else is there is no mention at all of the fact Clemons was married five times, and was the father of four sons (his nephew Jake was introduced as the E Street Band saxophonist in 2012).

Such a healthily detached perspective might well have been lost on the devoted fanbase at which this work clearly aims. But that's also a demographic fully conversant with Clarence's history and one perfectly willing to indulge in a sentimentality that also directly mirrors that of its subject. Clarence Clemons is hardly the first celebrity who discovered living up to his own image is self-defeating (see the life and times of The Who's Keith Moon) and it is also nothing new to hear pedantic but vague explications of a philosophy of life. But the exposition the co-producers tender comes at the expense of an explicit explanation of his passing (though it's noted outright on the back of the combo package): such a factual perspective would help immensely to ground this film.

A less simplistic take on the journey about which Clarence Clemons so solemnly intones late in the film would also involve clarifying the source and impetus of his spiritual pursuits. The most obvious explication is that the quest was the means to fill void that opened up when he wasn't making music, yet neither he, nor collaborator Mead, directly address the issue; avoiding that salient point begs the question of why the saxophonist/composer did not pursue the creation of more original music much earlier and more often in his career. To hear drummer/composer/producer Narada Michael Walden describe his collaborative experience with Clemons, it was an effortless process.

Ultimately, Who Do I Think I Am? leaves much mystery unresolved surrounding the life and work of Clarence Clemons. The aforementioned connection to his family is perhaps the most egregious oversight, but there is also no attempt in tying up on the loose end left hanging from the short segment devoted to the passing of this musician's mother: how exactly did he raise his voice in the wake of that profound moment in his life? To be fair, perhaps, the man's own abrupt demise precluded the depiction of a more thorough and well-rounded narrative, yet there is no such indication that is the case, either in the film (or other attendant resources).

The often breath-taking picturesque shots of land, sea and sky, particularly the footage from the saxophonist's sojourn to China, might've been a isolated and perhaps even extended as bonus feature unto itself in a package missing any such extras. Such a programming concept might well mollify the potentially adverse reactions of the objective viewer left wanting a more-healthily detached account than Clarence Clemons (and Mead) was able (or willing?) to provide. But then, he's not the first celebrity lacking in self-awareness, however much he preaches otherwise.

Repeated viewings may not mitigate the turgid unfolding of this biopic, further slowed by the overly-clever transitional graphic image. That pace, in fact, may even tempt some viewers to stop watching before the film reaches it's somewhat abrupt conclusion. But the rate at which this narrative (sic) unfolds may also present the very plausible notion, to a select few who watch, that the tempo does match the slow unfolding of wisdom (sic) in Clarence Clemons as he perceives his place in the universe. So, in the most practical terms, if but a smattering of those who see Who Do I Think I Am? come away with just a trace of tranquility (or a hint of how to find it), the care that went into this a labor of love will redeem its shortcomings.
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