“Blow, Big Man, blow!”
To Bruce Springsteen fans, Clarence Clemons was the much-loved saxophone player essential to the E Street experience.
Clemons was the Big Man, announced last-but-not-least with a master-of-the-universe flourish. He stood to the right of the Boss and shone in operatic set pieces such as “Jungleland” and “Thunder Road,” the latter often ending with Springsteen sliding into Clemons’ arms for a kiss.
An irreplaceable figure whom Springsteen leaned on emotionally — and literally, on the Born to Run album cover — it was Clemons whose death in 2011 put the future of the E Street Band in doubt. “Losing Clarence was like losing the rain,” Springsteen said nightly in his Broadway show.
Luckily for Springsteen, Jake Clemons, the Big Man’s nephew, is a sax player, and he has stepped in to keep the familial feeling going, and will be there next year when the Jersey rocker and his backing band once again go out on the road.
But beyond the larger-than-life mythology, who was the real Clarence Clemons? That’s the question asked by filmmaker Nick Mead’s Clarence Clemons: Who Do I Think I Am?.
The documentary screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 23, in a Philadelphia Film Society presentation at the Roxy Theater in Center City. The movie will be released on DVD and digital platforms on Aug. 13.
In the Springsteen universe, Clemons is a mythological figure who, in the Boss’ telling in many a “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” interlude, showed up one dark and stormy night in Asbury Park and magically blessed E Street with priceless, ineffable soul. “Well, the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band...”
To get at what purports to be a more personal truth, Mead follows Clemons in unexpected directions. Who Do I Think I Am? casts him as a sojourner on a lonely path even as he performs in front of thousands of fans.
The movie features talking heads you might not expect to see in a Clarence Clemons documentary: guitarist Joe Walsh, producer Narada Michael Walden. and former President Bill Clinton, whom Clemons apparently became close with after the two performed James Brown’s “Night Train” at an inaugural party in 1993.
Springsteen is not interviewed, though he is heard from in concert clips that include brief excerpts of Clemons’ long lined, lyrical solos, which bore the influence of his R&B hero, King Curtis. E Street is represented by Clemons’ nephew Jake, original drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, and Nils Lofgren, whose song, “We Miss You, C,” plays over the end credits.
The central journey of the doc is a trip that Clemons took to northeastern China after The Rising tour in 2005, where he visited ancient temples and sought a respite in the working-class city of Fuxin.
That quest for anonymity is halfway successful. Mead’s camera follows Clemons into the town square, where the 6-foot-5 sax man attracts attention in part because many people had never seen a black man before. “Bruce Springsteen?” one man asks. “What’s that?”
The film was in the works before the sax man’s death, and along with music composed and performed by Clemons, it includes haunting footage of the musician looking into the camera, talking about his search.
British director Mead became friends with Clemons after casting him as a horn-playing wise man in the 1999 indie movie Swing, which starred Lisa Stansfield.
Who Do I Think I Am? doesn’t bother nailing down details of Clemons’ life. Mead does go to Virginia to meet two of Clemons’ aunts who helped raise him. And a white childhood best friend recalls trips to Virginia Beach where the two buddies would have to take separate buses in the segregated South.
There’s no mention of any of Clemons’ five wives or of his children, and a 1968 car accident that derailed a potential professional football career is mentioned only in passing, as if we, as Springsteen fans, are supposed to know about it already.
Who Do I Think I Am? is fond and affectionate. Everybody who knew Clemons loved him, it seems. The movie celebrates his zest for life — a favorite carpe diem saying was, “Order the good wine.” An ESPN producer who hired Clemons’ band Temple of Soul talks about how Clemons “lived like a king.”
The movie, which is largely shot in black and white, misses the thrill ride one supposes would be at least part of the E Street story. Instead, it portrays Clemons as a seeker attempting to get a grip on himself, and his place in the world. By the end, he believes he’s found it in the music.
“The heart of it,” he says, “is that one note … the same note night after night. That’s the promised land. That’s where I belong. That’s who I think I am.”
Directed by: Nick Mead. Featuring Clarence Clemons, Bill Clinton, Nils Lofgren, Joe Walsh, Jake Clemons, Willie Nile, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. Distributed by Virgil Films.
Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes.
Parent’s Guide: Not Rated.
7 p.m. Tuesday, PFS at the Roxy Theater, 2023 Sansom St., $13, 267-239-2941, www.filmadelphia.org