The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy Dir. Alan Gilsenan

[Element Pictures; 2010]

Styles: biography, documentary
Others: No Direction Home, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts

There are few enormously successful and truly popular artists who, upon looking back at their life and career, don’t fall prey to at least a little bit of hubris. This seems completely natural, given the praise and affirmation in which most ‘influential artists’ are constantly immersed. Being told you’re Jesus 2.0 on a daily basis would almost definitely warp anyone’s sense of self. However, those few who manage to rise above the grandiose myths that so often sublate the actual facts of their experience, and sincerely try to lay bare the truth of their lives, are worthy of a different and presumably more fulfilling type of praise — the natural admiration that arises from watching someone recount the events of their lives with unflinching honesty and humility is something terribly hard to fake.

In Alan Gilsenan’s intimate portrait The Yellow Bittern, Liam Clancy reveals himself as one of the most staggeringly humble artists of the 20th century. Clancy, who first made a name for himself in 1950s New York with Irish folk group The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, has influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to U2. As one of modern folk music’s early innovators, Clancy was championed by many throughout his career for his untiring dedication to constantly updating the way he performed firmly canonized folk songs, reinterpreting them into something fully his own.

Filmed shortly before Clancy’s death in December of 2009, The Yellow Bittern separates itself from most biographical documentaries by opting to discard the trite sensational and sentimental pitfalls of the genre. Telling the story of one of folk music’s most influential balladeers without resorting to grand nostalgic statements about the importance of his art — which many fans and music historians would only be so happy to supply — renders The Yellow Bittern a much more compelling and truly insightful film than I was expecting. We’ve all watched our fair share of Behind the Music specials, and it’s refreshing to see something this honest and thoughtful.

The format of the film is fairly simple. Clancy, placidly sitting on a modestly decorated sound stage, with a tastefully positioned projection screen behind him, plainly relates the accomplishments and (largely self-inflicted) setbacks he experienced in a music career that spanned over 50 years. The artist’s natural gift for storytelling sets the pace of The Yellow Bittern, which thankfully never drags or becomes tedious throughout its two-hour runtime, which is quite a feat considering the fact that it’s essentially a monologue.

While the film benefits from a wealth of archival photographs and hard-to-come-by concert footage (both used to great effect), The Yellow Bittern’s most salient feature is Clancy’s own face, shown often in extreme close up. His eyes and weathered face often tell more about the man than his words ever could. There’s a certain glint in his eyes that reveals a joy that helped sustain him through the various peaks and valleys of his life, a way of seeing the world as more of a gift than a burden. This basic outlook on life is born out by the way Clancy recounts some his most heartbreaking realizations, principally of a battle with alcoholism that would trouble him until his death.

By the end of the film, Gilsenan has firmly established Clancy as a man completely thankful for every good thing that’s ever happened to him. His marked humility and gratitude have a way of reminding the viewer of just how easy it is to become cynical and bitter. Liam Clancy would never claim to be a role model, but, in this film, the way in which he confronts the sometimes-uncomfortable story of his own life reveals him as a man with a truly remarkable amount of integrity and sincerity.

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