Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars
Eric Clapton, Pattie Boyd, Bobby Whitlock
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Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars is a deeply personal, finely judged tour through the dark life of one of the world’s greatest guitar players.
While exhaustive, every-point-covered documentaries have been compiled on contemporaries like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Jimi Hendrix, the life of Eric Clapton – one of the most essential and pioneering figures in the heady world of UK blues – has been largely left untouched. That critical omission is soundly and roundly put to right with the sprawling, creatively daring documentary, Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars, which gives the eponymous guitar hero his due, and then some. Helmed by (initially) surprise choice, Lili Fini Zanuck (a prolific producer whose last film as director was 1991’s drug-spiked undercover cop drama, Rush), the two-hours-plus film, however, doesn’t play out like the usual rock doco, instead burrowing deep into the recesses of Clapton’s childhood, and looking for the root causes of the torrid addictions that would eventually rule and nearly wreck his life.
Utilising an approach perhaps best described as “unseen talking heads” (also deployed by director, Brett Morgen, in his 2012 Stones doco, Crossfire Hurricane), Zanuck extensively interviews, but does not show on screen, a host of hooked-in players, including Clapton himself, along with a formidable list of former friends, lovers, and bandmates. Overlayed with trunk-loads of intimate archival footage, this provides a wonderfully swirling, impressionistic portrait of Clapton, but also robs the film of some of its emotion. Deprived of seeing the faces of the interviewees, the audience always remains at a distance from the film, not allowed to engage with the compelling story’s tellers via on-screen eye contact.
Still, what a story it is, as the awkward young Eric Clapton escapes a childhood of familial neglect via a passionate, almost inhuman love of the guitar, whose sounds he soon bends to form his own extraordinary musical vision. Profoundly influenced by blues godheads like Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Eric Clapton’s deft, imaginative and soulful playing quickly gets him noticed in England and then around the world, as he moves through envelope-pushing bands like The Yardbirds, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek And The Dominoes.
As well as an adoring fan base (the words, “Clapton is God”, were famously scrawled across British walls and tube stations in the late sixties and seventies), Clapton also picked up a number of crippling bad habits, first stringing himself out on heroin, and then tipping into years of embarrassing alcoholism, which clouded his on-stage performances and goaded him into making a number of infamously ill-advised political pronouncements between his increasingly compromised guitar solos. Through all of this, Clapton also staggered from relationship to relationship, most visibly with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend and fellow guitar hero, George Harrison.
Fascinatingly, this mix of smack, booze, and women is where Zanuck locates the nexus of the Clapton story, with the guitarist opening up in revealing and insightful ways about the addictions and subsequent bad decisions that continuously sent him careening off the rails. It’s a raw, powerful piece of self-assessment from Clapton, and it makes for occasionally bleak viewing, as Zanuck bravely minimises the usual injections of humour that come with tales of wild behaviour on the road and other rock doco staples. It’s a tough watch (which becomes heartbreaking when it reaches the tragic 1991 death of Clapton’s infant son, Conor), but thankfully ends on a happy note with a now sober Eric Clapton high on the joys of raising a young family, and still entranced by the seemingly endless possibilities of the blues.
Though Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars might disappoint fans looking for reams of musical performances and abundant meditations on the art of guitar playing from its central figurehead, it instead offers up something far more enriching: the candid, absorbing story of a deeply flawed and often unlikeable man who wrestles valiantly with his demons, and ultimately emerges from those internal battles as a far better human being.