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Clapton doc ‘Life in 12 Bars’ fascinating but flawed

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Director Lili Fini Zanuck's "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars" offers an unflinchingly honest look at the life and career of the rock legend. The movie premiered in theaters before going to Showtime. It is available now on Blu-ray and DVD. Director Lili Fini Zanuck's "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars" offers an unflinchingly honest look at the life and career of the rock legend. The movie premiered in theaters before going to Showtime. It is available now on Blu-ray and DVD. (photo courtesy Lili Fini Zanuck)

For her documentary on the life of rock legend Eric Clapton “Life in 12 Bars,” director Lili Fini Zanuck utilized a combination of pro-shot archival footage, shaky old-school home movies, still images and voiceovers.

The film is an emotionally impactful and revealing but incomplete portrait of one of popular music’s most beloved yet misunderstood figures. The film appeared in select theatres before going to Showtime and is now out on Blu-ray and DVD.

“Life in 12 Bars” packs an emotional wallop through Clapton’s willingness to share so much of his real story – warts and all – through both contemporary and vintage interviews.

Without relying on talking heads or newly-shot scenes, the film lays bare the pain of rejection and loneliness Clapton felt during critical eras of his life.

Abandoned by his mother shortly after birth to be raised by his grandparents, we hear Clapton describe the pain he felt when he first realized the truth of his mother’s rejection.

Being exposed to an occasional blues song on a radio program otherwise populated with children’s ditties both stirred his soul and soothed the pain in his heart.

When his mother rejected him a second time at the age of 9, during a brief reunion in Germany, Clapton’s pain manifested itself in anger and an inability to maintain friendships.

He similarly moved through the ranks of five enormously influential bands but he always had a good reason for bailing.

The Yardbirds betrayed their original blues mission by going pop. John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers rewarded his purism but became stifling. In Cream, he was bookended by two virtuosos (Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) who spent the life of the band trying to kill each other. Blind Faith’s success wasn’t deserved, Clapton felt. It was too much too soon. Derek and the Dominos imploded from drugs and Eric’s obsessive, unrequited love for his best friend’s wife.

It’s all pretty heady stuff and it’s impossible to look away when Eric tries to woo the real “Layla” - Pattie Harrison (we see his first love letter to her, read in her voice), gets caught up in Cream’s crossfire, guests on an Aretha Franklin session and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for The Beatles, becomes BFFs with Jimi Hendrix (we hear an affectionate but very stoned conversation between the pair) and is left glassy-eyed and tweaked-out from heroin addiction in the early ‘70s.

Clapton trades one addiction for another when he becomes a raging (emphasis on “rage”) alcoholic for the rest of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s. Sober, he was sweet, loving and intelligent. Drunk, he was insulting and insufferable.

We hear him berate his audience and swear at his frightened bandmates. He admits to a death wish but he didn’t kill himself, he says, because then he would no longer be able to drink. At times, he could barely stand let alone perform. Yet he somehow did.

That Clapton encouraged Zanuck to include footage from chapters of his life that are now physically painful for him to acknowledge is a testament to his ongoing sobriety – a work in progress since the fall of 1987. He attributes his sober life to his desire to finally “grow up” when his son Conor, was born.

The child transformed the father as Clapton did his best to become the loving parent he never had. We see footage of the pair having a ball at a circus in Long Island in March 1991.

The next day, Clapton was on his way to see Conor when he received a distraught phone call from the boy’s mother. The child had fallen from an open window on the 53rd floor of a New York City apartment building.

Back in England following Conor’s funeral, Clapton opens envelopes of condolence to find a loving, handmade letter from his son, mailed as a surprise just before the tragedy.

“If I can go through this and stay sober, then anyone can,” Clapton says, as the viewer reads the letter. He vowed to live his life from that moment to honor his son’s memory.

Living up to his promise, Clapton built a drug and alcohol treatment center on the island of Antigua where he has long had a home. Several large-scale all-star benefit concerts have been staged and many of Clapton’s most treasured guitars have been auctioned off to fund the Crossroads facility, now in its 20th year.

What’s missing from “Life in 12 Bars,” however, are key chapters in Clapton’s life and career.

  •         He helped bring reggae music into the mainstream by taking Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff” to number one in 1974.
  •         Lured from seclusion in January 1973 by friend Pete Townshend – worried about Clapton’s ongoing heroin addiction – an all-star band supported him for two comeback shows at London’s Rainbow Theatre. Eric ultimately went back to smack for another year.
  •         Also absent is any reference to Clapton’s reluctance to follow musical trends. When most were swayed by disco, punk or new wave in the late 1970s, Clapton instead made intentionally quiet, countrified records influenced by Don Williams and J.J. Cale.
  •         Clapton’s 1985 Philadelphia performance at the Live Aid concert for African famine relief recharged his career. Clapton became a relevant and revered elder rock statesman (though he was only 40)
  •         In the twilight of his career, he took another crack at the past. As unlikely a rock reunion as any, Cream triumphantly reformed for a series of shows in 2005. Clapton has since revisited Blind Faith on a tour with Steve Winwood, reunited with John Mayall for a birthday concert and toured extensively with a Derek and the Dominos-heavy setlist and a band that included Derek Trucks – then of the Allman Brothers Band.

Ultimately, “Life in 12 Bars” succeeds for what it does include. It’s a startlingly honest portrait of an outrageously talented and complicated soul. Part music-geek nirvana, part psychotherapy session, like its protagonist, it’s real.

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