Review: Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

Artist biodocs would seem to be easier to pull off than artist biopics, as long as there’s enough available footage. Eric Clapton has been more or less a star since he emerged in mid-60s England as a blues guitar prodigy and purist, and this career review makes ample use of film and photography, not to mention audio recordings of friends and family who offer insight into Clapton’s mindset at specific junctures in his life. There’s a lot to chew on, and in the end we get a very good idea of the kind of person Clapton is but are not much closer to understanding his sensibility as an artist than we were before we watched the movie.

The overriding theme is Clapton’s sensitivity. A shy kid who buried himself in African-American blues music as a means of co-opting others’ marginalized status to make sense of his own, he admits in voiceover that he had a happy early childhood being raised by two people who he thought were his parents. At age 9, however, he discovered that the woman he called his mother was really his grandmother, and that his real mother had abandoned him after a one-night-stand pregnancy and moved to Canada. Twice during the film, at suspiciously opportune but awkward junctures in the narrative, director Lili Fini Zanuck returns to Clapton’s childhood to point out how damaging his mother’s “cruel” rejection of him as her own flesh and blood was to his psyche, and how it colored his self-image. Zanuck conveniently uses these incidents to explain his addictions but in terms of Clapton’s artistry all she does is point to his identification with the blues as a balm, and leaves it at that for the rest of the film.

This strategy is particularly frustrating given the film’s length, its leaden pace, and its obsessive focus on Clapton’s crush on Patti Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison, and the inspiration for his greatest work of art, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. But while Zanuck does show how a fortuitous meeting with Duane Allman helped crystallize Clapton’s vision for the album, she completely disregards his post-Blind Faith work with the seminal Southern R&B couple Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, who, more than anyone else, helped him become the singer who was as vital to Layla‘s success as his guitar playing and writing were. (She also excises his first solo album, produced by Delaney, which was a seminal transitional work between the excess of the 60s and the more “authentic” music of the 70s.) Essentially, all Layla is to the movie is the last great creative push before his quick descent, sparked by Boyd’s paranoid rejection of the album, into years of heroin and alcohol abuse. Though, personally, I found his music much less interesting during this troubled period, it sold well and kept him rich, but Zanuck doesn’t even address the music, just the drinking and the inconsistent stage demeanor, which peaked with that infamous racist tirade at a concert in London, an incident he speaks to directly here with great regret. Given Clapton’s obvious sensitive nature and what he owed the great American blues musicians he idolized as a boy, no one could take the tirade as anything other than the ramblings of a self-hating drunk. Zanuck knows this but throws the incident off as if she herself is embarrassed by it.

The last half hour zooms through Clapton’s recovery, the death of his son, and his subsequent success as an MOR superstar, though, again, by not saying much about the music except that it was finally recognized by the Grammys she short changes both his stature and his influence. His story here is that of a survivor of emotional trauma. Leave it to others to analyze his place as an innovator in the annals of rock and roll.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001).

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Bushbranch Films Ltd. 2017/Ron Pownall

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