Lili Fini Zanuck’s connection with Eric Clapton goes back at least a quarter-century: He scored the one previous feature she has directed, Rush, in 1991. Now Zanuck lets him tell his life story in Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, a rock-doc less vibrant than most. Appealing only to the die-hard “Clapton is God” contingent (and likely to disappoint a fair chunk of them), it’s an odd fit for the Toronto International Film Festival, perhaps making the cut thanks to the showbiz pedigree of its director and co-screenwriter (music-biz manager Stephen “Scooter” Weintraub). Video is its best bet.
The film’s title promises a story told with the tidy structure of the blues. (Either that, or it’s a bad joke about Clapton’s long struggle with alcoholism.) But Life proves weirdly assembled, with counterintuitive emphases. Naturally, it spends a good deal of time recounting the years when the guitarist developed his following in blues-based and psychedelic groups. But then things get muddy, with long, unpersuasive accounts of personal dramas, and Clapton’s long career as a solo recording artist is treated like a blip, a throwaway period between 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs and 1992’s Grammy-conquering Unplugged. This is no exaggeration: A single short scene sweeps through all those albums, their covers scrolling by as if on an old iPod Touch, while the voiceover more or less dismisses them all as the product of a drug- and booze-deranged lost period.
And voiceover is all we get here. Though the film recruits some key players in Clapton’s story, from his grandmother Rose Clapp to John Mayall to Pattie Boyd (the object of his disruptive romantic obsession in the late ‘60s, and later his wife), none appear on camera — not even the film’s subject, whose narration sounds more like a rough draft of an audiobook than the result of probing interviews. The absence of on-camera appearances proves distancing for viewers, forcing one to wonder if Zanuck and company just didn’t feel like setting up lights and camera gear every time they spoke to someone. (It’s not as if Zanuck, the producer of Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon and other hits, is some scrappy newcomer who can’t afford to rent gear.)
By far the most enjoyable part of this over two-hour film — hey, at least it’s not as long as those recent classic-rock endurance tests starring the Eagles and the Grateful Dead — is its first 30 or 40 minutes, before it starts caring about Clapton’s love life. We see performance clips and hear recordings pertaining to his dramatic arrival on the British music scene: He joins the Yardbirds as a replacement guitarist, quickly attracting a “Clapton Clique” of fans who seem indifferent to the frontman; but he leaves just as the group is hitting with “For Your Love,” believing they were selling out. Mayall hunted him down in the country, recruiting him for the Bluesbreakers; they gigged so regularly that Clapton moved into his bandleader’s home.
In a brief bit, Clapton recalls setting out to make his guitar sound like Little Walter’s harmonica or the “reed instrument” (it’s called a shehnai) of Bismillah Khan. And we see some early interviews in which Clapton, who evangelized for black American blues artists from the start, predicts that eventually white audiences would be sophisticated enough to go to the source, putting white blues acts out of a job. It didn’t work out that way.
The connection between the visual materials Zanuck sourced from archives and the stories we’re hearing (from speakers we can’t always distinguish from one other) starts to get more tenuous as the interviews turn to Clapton’s romantic affairs. Things move oddly from one anecdote to the next, sometimes taking a trip back in time — to revelations about Clapton’s birth mother, who abandoned him for his grandparents to raise — to justify his later behavior with women. The picture’s storytelling failures are most glaring when it comes to a romantic triangle between Clapton, his good friend George Harrison and Harrison’s wife Boyd. It almost takes effort to drain so much punch out of this inherently dramatic scenario.
A heartbroken Clapton, who fails to win Boyd’s heart with Layla, retreats into drugs and drink, and the film becomes something of a slog. We know that genuine tragedy and career revival are to come, and the movie touches these bases, but much less affectingly than it might have. In the end we have a seemingly happy, healthy man, which is great, but we may have lost whatever interest in his life we had at the outset.
Production companies: Zanuck Company, Passion Pictures
Distributor: Showtime Documentary Films
Director: Lili Fini Zanuck
Screenwriters: Stephen “Scooter” Weintraub, Larry Yelen
Producers: Lili Fini Zanuck, John Battsek, Stephen “Scooter” Weintraub, Larry Yelen
Editors: Chris King, Paul Monaghan
Composer: Gustavo Santaolalla
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)