These days, Eric Clapton, a married husband with three young daughters, is happy. But for years, the UK blues artist, known for his almost divine powers on the guitar, was a reckless addict who left a trail of tears and disappointment in his wake.
His story is the subject of Hollywood producer-turned-documentarian Lili Fini Zanuck's latest film, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, a straightforward, mostly chronological retelling of the rock star's rise to fame and path to redemption. Unlike his 2007 autobiography, it's a far less introspective look, for better or worse.
Made up of archival and never-before-seen footage, Life in 12 Bars looks at the story of "slowhand" by charting his journey as a young boy living in Ripley to today, stopping off occasionally to focus on the juicier bits of his biography: his love for George Harrison's wife Pattie Boyd, and the ways he tried to steal her away from the former Beatle; his decades of addiction issues and the racist onstage rant that nearly derailed his career; estrangement from his mother, and the loneliness he experienced because of it; and the death of his son Conor, who tragically fell out of a Manhattan apartment window in 1991.
In doing so, Life in 12 Bars does a good job of showcasing how Clapton's personal tragedy and talent as a musician are undoubtedly interconnected — if only the film had the original material to back it up. For a movie about a man who once inspired teenagers to spray-paint "Clapton is God" on the streets of England, his skills as a guitarist are only occasionally discussed and his music is mostly absent in the film, save for a few of his biggest hits — instead, composer and guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla's score is heard through most of it.
There are also some large gaps in Zanuck's documentary, with the film avoiding all of his solo albums and encapsulating 19 years of music in just a few words. (Clapton claims to have no interest in most of his albums between Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and Unplugged because he can hear how drunk he is on the recordings.) It stands in contrast to how self-aware and open he is early on in the film, as well as in his autobiography.
Life in 12 Bars is a solid enough film for the unaware and uninitiated, but it's also just a piece of the puzzle, feeding into the myth while attempting focus on the man, too. If you want the full story, listen to his albums.