Eric Clapton has had a career that any musician would envy. The only three-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he helped expose blues music to white America while staying a leading-edge, influential figure on guitar since the 1960s, receiving commercial and critical acclaim in multiple decades.
His life has had its share of heartache however. Rejected by his birth mother (twice, no less) and raised by his grandmother, Clapton found solace first in music, but later in drugs and alcohol. That the death of his four-year-old son Conner didn't fully send him over the edge is a testament to Clapton's will to change his lifestyle. Directed by Lili Zanuck, who also directed Rush (Which Clapton provided the score to and which also gave Clapton one of his biggest and most poignant hits, "Tears in Heaven"), Life in 12 Bars takes a warts and all look at Clapton's life through new interviews and archival footage.
The documentary begins with a video of Clapton expressing sadness over the then-recent death of his friend and mentor, fellow guitar great B.B King, before going back to Clapton's childhood. The film sometimes skips around time in this way, often to make points, though it can make it a bit disjointed at times. We learn that Clapton's 16-year old mother Patricia left him with his grandmother, Rose Clapp, who raised him as her own. Clapton would later go to meet his mother, who cruelly rejected him, a move that severely affected the already introverted and withdrawn guitarist.
Clapton discovered the blues in an unusual place, Uncle Mac's children's show. In addition to typical children's material, the show, hosted by Derek "Uncle Mac" McCulloch, played tracks by the likes of Muddy Waters. Clapton was transfixed and immediately wanted to become a guitarist. He devoted his life to the guitar and quickly became very good, joining a band called the Roosters around 1963 before getting his big break as The Yardbirds' lead guitarist.
When the Yardbirds shared a Christmas bill with The Beatles, the band didn't think much of the mop tops initially, but Clapton hit it off with George Harrison, a friendship that was later tested when Clapton fell in love with Harrison's wife Pattie Boyd. Always one to follow his muse, Clapton left The Yardbirds after the success of "For Your Love," feeling that the band, and he as a result, had sold out.
It wasn't long before Clapton found another gig, this time as lead guitarist for John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd stated that their record was "like nothing anyone had ever heard," and Clapton's reputation as "God" was quickly cemented. One of the themes in Clapton's life seems to be constant change and, as such, he was quickly out of the Bluesbreakers and into Cream. Here we are treated to some killer live footage and interviews from the era. We also get some great Beatles footage during the recording of the White Album, where Clapton contributed to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and a session with Aretha Franklin. Franklin apparently laughed when she saw Clapton in his Afro and psychedelic clothes, but stopped laughing when she heard him play.
A small bit of the documentary is dedicated to Clapton's Blind Faith period, including some great concert footage but oddly, there is no mention of his time with Delaney and Bonnie. A fact made all the more unusual in that the core of Derek and the Dominoes came from that group.
Much is made of Clapton's passion for Boyd and that the track "Layla" and really the entire album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs are both about her. It was Clapton's plea, under the alias of Derek for Boyd to leave Harrison and run away with him. It didn't work and it drove an already drug and alcohol addled Clapton further into despair. While the film goes into great detail about Clapton's heroin addiction during this time, no mention is made of Pete Townshend's efforts to organize the Rainbow Concert to help Clapton clean up his act and jumpstart his career again. Boyd however is interviewed and offers some insight into their volatile relationship. The pair eventually married in 1979. No mention is made that three of the four Beatles performed together at Clapton and Boyd's wedding.
From this point, the documentary breezes through the remaining 40-plus years of Clapton's career. It goes into great detail about Clapton's heavy drinking and how his shows could be erratic, but aside from a couple album covers and live clips, makes little to no mention of the many successful albums he had during this period. Clapton addresses his infamous racist comments from a 1970s concert, blaming it on his addict's brain and saying it sickened him to think back at that, especially since he had been such a champion of black music, had dated black women, and had black friends.
Clapton eventually cleaned up his act, of course, only to have his young son Conor die tragically after falling from a 53-story window in New York. While this tested Clapton's sobriety, he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to Conor's memory, later founding his Crossroads Centre to help people with addictions.
While the documentary shows clips from Unplugged, and the awards it won, it doesn't really state how that album reintroduced Clapton to a new generation of fans. In addition, for a film that talks about Clapton's dedication to the blues, his blues album and tour from 1994 are curiously avoided. Those are the main issues with Life in 12 Bars however. What is included is fantastic and well worth checking out. The documentary could benefit from an additional hour is all. An artist as complex and decorated as Clapton deserves it.