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Toronto Film Review: ‘Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars’

The guitar god's five-decade-plus career is charted in Lili Fini Zanuck's documentary tribute, but not enough attention is paid to his later work.

Eric Clapton, Sylvia Clapton, Ben Palmer, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, John Mayall, Mike Vernon, Roger Waters, Hughie Flint, Tom Dowd, Duane Allman, Ahmet Ertegan, Charlotte Martin, Pattie Boyd, Steve Winwood, Cathy James, Steve Turner, Jamie Oldaker, George Terry, Bobby Whitlock, B.B. King.

“Clapton is God” graffiti began appearing — to the guitarist deity’s considerable annoyance — very early in his career, which now spans more than five decades. He certainly comes off as a fallible mortal in longtime friend Lili Fini Zanuck’s “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars,” which tells the legendary British musician’s story via a wealth of archival footage and (mostly) latter-day voiceover commentary. The Showtime feature is slated for limited theatrical release early next year, prior to its Feb. 10 cable bow.

As absorbing as much of this material is, the lengthy feature does not feel definitive: It commits the typical music-doc sin of devoting nearly all its time to a celebrated first professional decade, then hastily skimming past all events since. Further, the limited attention paid to later years dwells entirely on already amply chronicled struggles with addiction and personal tragedy, basically ignoring any music made after 1972. Though it all, Clapton himself remains somewhat elusive, save when acting badly under the influence; he has never been one to wear emotions on his sleeve.

The first 90 minutes or so here are gold, however, even if fans might wish for more detail on the dizzying number of fabled bands Clapton formed and/or played with over a 10-year span.

A “blissful childhood” in Surrey was marred when, at age 9, he discovered that the parents who raised him were actually his grandparents, and his rather awful true mother (who’d conceived him in a one-night-stand) would continue to reject him in various ways. Introduced to American blues music through a U.K. kids’ radio program, he quickly became an obsessive, collecting import records and teaching himself guitar. Though briefly intending to study visual art, he was soon drafted (when still a teenager) into the already successful Yardbirds — a group he quit for going “too pop” with the international hit “For Your Love.”

More to his liking was John Mayall’s band, where his presence helped to mainstream blues rock. Clapton was one of few white players considered a true bluesman, and he championed black American blues greats (notably B.B. King) throughout his career. He became the star attraction in a series of influential but short-lived bands: Blind Faith, the hugely popular Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes, whose signature song “Layla” is given a great deal of attention here. He also played on other people’s projects, including tracks by Aretha Franklin and the Beatles, as well as close friend George Harrison’s entire solo debut “All Things Must Pass.”

But there was already trouble brewing, indirectly due to Harrison; Clapton developed an infatuation toward Harrison’s then-wife Pattie Boyd. By the time that marriage ended and they were finally able to be a couple, he’d gotten mired in substance abuse. There was heroin, then alcohol, sometimes cocaine, sometimes all the above. After a couple years’ seclusion, he re-emerged, albeit as a loose cannon prone to drunken concerts and ill-advised public comments. It’s at this early/mid-1970s point that “A Life” stops being about the music and starts seeming more like an episode of “Behind the Music.”

The bluesman sobered up in 1986 with the unplanned arrival of his first child, Conor. Parenthood was “very stabilizing,” as well as a joy — but in a tragic accident, the 4-year-old fell out a 53rd-story window left open in a moment when adults weren’t looking. It was a horrendous loss, but Clapton eventually moved on to a second marriage and further offspring.

Yet apart from Grammy-winning 1992 song “Tears in Heaven” (about Conor), there’s scant attention paid here to his post-Dominoes musical output: only an eye-blink montage of album covers (though they include some of his most successful) and the dismissive judgment, “I can hear how drunk I am” on recordings of that period. It seems there ought to be room to at least mention hits like “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Lay Down Sally,” for instance, or to note his appearance in the 1975 film “Tommy.” For all its length, “A Life in 12 Bars” often seems less interested in details that might matter to fans than in materials (home movies, rare promo clips etc.) that Zanuck’s privileged access gained her. As portrayed here, Clapton is undeniably a great talent, but a confessed introvert who’s not all that compelling or articulate a personality. Less about his personal life and more about his professional one would have made for a more valuable document overall.

Nevertheless, the archival footage here is diverse and absorbing, and the assembly well paced. Apart from Clapton himself, principal interviewees include Boyd, Mayall, King, Duane Allman and Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun. Archival voices heard encompass Harrison and Jimi Hendrix; the latter and Clapton are sweetly (if hazily) besotted with one another in a vintage audio clip. Mixing of the variable live and studio tracks is up to the standard that old-school audiophiles will expect.

“A Life in 12 Bars” reps longtime producer Zanuck’s first directorial feature since 1991’s narrative drama “Rush,” an underrated film that was also much about drug abuse — and which commenced her association with Clapton when he agreed to write the original score, which included “Tears in Heaven.”

Toronto Film Review: 'Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs), Sept. 16, 2017. Running time: 134 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.K.) A Showtime Documentary Films presentation of a Zanuck Co. and Passion Pictures production. (International sales: Altitude Film Sales, London.) Producers: Lily Fini Zanuck, Scooter Weintraub, Larry Yelen, John Battsek. Executive producers: Vinnie Malhotra.

Crew: Directed by Lili Fini Zanuck. Screenplay, Scooter Weintraub, Larry Yelen. Camera (color, HD), various; editor, Chris Ace; music, Gustavo Santaolalla.

With: Eric Clapton, Sylvia Clapton, Ben Palmer, Chris Dreja, Jim McCarty, John Mayall, Mike Vernon, Roger Waters, Hughie Flint, Tom Dowd, Duane Allman, Ahmet Ertegan, Charlotte Martin, Pattie Boyd, Steve Winwood, Cathy James, Steve Turner, Jamie Oldaker, George Terry, Bobby Whitlock, B.B. King.

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