Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars Review
Is it possible to look at the life and work of one of the most influential contemporary musicians, whose career spans more than 50 years, and detail their creative process, deconstruct their influences and go through key moments of their personal life in a little over two hours? This is what the great Eric Clapton and his director, and long-time friend and collaborator, Lili Fini Zanuck (Rush) have tried to do with Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars. Although far from being a failure, and sometimes reaching moments of grace, the documentary fails to provide a definitive view about the legendary guitarist.
Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars follows the British musician through his early life in Surrey, his rise to fame in the 60s as a member of various bands such as The Yardbirds, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Blind Faith, his subsequent solo career and through the events of his personal life which have shaped the legend. Clapton’s career documentary is in good hands under Zanuck’s direction. Clapton and Zanuck first collaborated in the early 90s on the score of Zanuck’s first movie Rush, a crime drama starring Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as undercover cops. She also directed two of Clapton’s music videos (for Tears in Heaven and Pilgrim in 1992 and 1998), and she produced the documentary Eric Clapton & Friends in Concert: A Benefit for the Crossroads Centre at Antigua in 1999. Zanuck is also not a stranger to cinema, having previously produced films like Cocoon and Reign of Fire and even winning an Oscar in 1989 for Driving Miss Daisy.
The most interesting, and rather bold, choice of the documentary is the filmmaker's decision to rely only on the use of pictures, archival videos and interviews, through to more recent audio. There are no interviews filmed especially for the documentary and Clapton himself only appears at the beginning of the documentary in a short video filmed at the time of B.B. King’s death in 2015, whose music was very influential and incidentally, also a close friend and collaborator. Although this will most likely displease many viewers, and might be consider by some as a lazy choice, this has the amazing benefit of providing a deeper immersion into the documentary. Although usually fun, video interviews filmed for a documentary can have a tendency to distract the audience which can easily be more interested in getting an idea of how much people have changed over the years rather than the artist's career, and hence break the immersion in the moment.
The efficiency of this process is particularly powerful during the section devoted to the creation of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, an album which notoriously mixed Clapton‘s personal feelings for Harrison’s wife, Pattie Boyd, his willingness to break his star status, his current influences and the death of his friend Jimi Hendrix. The absence of a recent interview allows the viewers to be fully absorbed in the creation of this masterpiece, and sometimes even feel as if they're there, and it reaches a peak of emotion when the last part of the song Layla is used over an archival home video close-up of Clapton’s face while he’s talking about his addictions and the state of his life at the time.
Throughout the documentary there are some very candid confessions from Clapton especially in relation to his addictions, painting the portrait of a true genius constantly in search of something else. Unfortunately Clapton’s addictions, especially to alcohol, are also used as a means to skim through the second part of his career. Therefore there is a clear imbalance between the “two” parts of the guitarist’s career and the lack of attention to his later work, which is also the biggest part of his career in terms of years, which has a clear detrimental impact on the documentary as a whole. Even if the reasons behind this choice can sound totally justified to the filmmakers, one can only regret that this leaves an unfinished impression which unfortunately lingers after the viewing.