Eric Clapton battles the blues, addiction in documentary
Eagle Vision

It’s an argument that dates back to The Rolling Stones’ first years as an active band: You can teach white English boys how to play the blues, but you can’t make ‘em feel it. If you hadn’t lived the hard knocks life of a Southern sharecropper or Chicago busker, what emotions could you possibly bring to the music?

Eric Clapton never had a problem convincing the world (or his African-American blues mentors) that his passion for blues was authentic. The guitar god never suffered the indignities of poverty or racial prejudice as a child, but he was certainly no stranger to rejection, alienation and isolation. Young “Ric” was a loner who never really fit in at school in Surrey, and who preferred listening to Muddy Waters on the Uncle Mac radio show to hanging out with other boys. Kid Clapton’s general sense that something was “off” was confirmed at age nine when he discovered that the woman he’d thought of as his estranged older sister was his true biological mother. Kindly “parents” Jack and Rose Clapp were actually his grandparents.

“My whole life had been a lie,” the guitarist would reflect decades later.

Clapton re-encountered Patricia Clapton (and her Canadian soldier husband) during a visit to Germany at age fifteen…only to be shunted and dismissed again. His personality was stifled and smothered, and he was forced to get a haircut to keep the peace. Meanwhile, Eric’s stepbrother demolished his acoustic guitar.     

“It was so cruel,” agreed Rose Clapp.

Traumatic as it was, Clapton’s mistaken sense of identity merely laid the groundwork for what would become a life steeped in the blues. Academy Award-winning director Lili Fini Zanuck (wife of late movie producer Richard “Dick” Zanuck) recognized that Clapton’s creativity and genius—and proclivity for self-destruction—was underpinned by constant loss and longing when they collaborated on the Rush soundtrack. Now, with Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, she examines the three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s turbulent career in a deeply moving documentary that cuts to the quick of Eric’s very essence.

The resulting portrait of the artist takes nothing away from Clapton’s legacy as a multi-generational guitar hero. But it does reveal other facets of the six-stringer’s personality that tend toward the dark, morose, unlikable…even pitiful. Turns out the now-retired guitar god was every bit as human as the rest of us, was always as prone to heartache as the next guy, and was plagued by feelings of doubt, despair, and disconnect well into his forties and fifties.

Named for the most common chord progression in blues music, Zanuck’s biopic traces Clapton’s musical arc from his childhood—when he listened to Muddy Waters on the Uncle Mac radio show—to his tenure with pianist Ben Palmer in The Roosters and Crawdaddy Club residency with The Yardbirds. He rubbed elbows with The Beatles at a Hammersmith Christmas concert, but absconded from the “For Your Love” group when they went pop. Viewers are treated to heaps of archival footage as Eric trades his Fender Telecaster for a Gibson Les Paul (and his Vox AC-30 amp for Marshall stacks), enlists with John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers in 1965, and allies with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in psychedelic power trio Cream in 1966.

We learn of Clapton’s kinship with George Harrison and Jimi Hendrix, and how each informed both his outlook and introspection. He obsessed over Harrison’s young wife, Pattie Boyd, and lamented when Hendrix died early:

“I wasn’t sad that he died,” we hear in a Clapton voiceover. “I was mad that he didn’t take me with him.”

Hooked on heroin and smack, Eric bounces through Blind Faith (with Steve Winwood) and pitches in on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass debut before pouring his heart out (over Pattie) on Derek & The Dominos’ Layla and Other Love Songs with Allman Brothers slide guitarist Duane Allman and organ ace Bobby Whitlock. Old footage and home movie reels take us behind the scenes at Thunderbird Hotel and Criteria Studios in Miami, where producer Tom Dowd and record exec Ahmet Ertegun marvel over Clapton’s Majnun-inspired masterpiece.

Discouraged by Layla’s sluggish sales, rejected by Boyd (who wouldn’t leave Harrison), and out of his mind on drugs, Eric sequesters himself at Hurtwood Estate to wallow in the “pink cotton wool” of addiction.  

The film bypasses Clapton’s time with Delaney and Bonnie in order to cut to the quick of his solo career: Intervention helps Eric quit heroin and ready himself for a world tour…but on the road he replaces drugs with rampant drinking. Zanuck cycles through the making of ‘70s and ‘80s albums like No Reason to Cry, Slowhand, Money and Cigarettes, Behind the Sun, and August in order to preserve the compelling narrative of Clapton’s downward spiral. The alcohol consumption only worsens as the “Wonderful Tonight” singer shuffles women in and out of his life (and embarrasses himself repeatedly in concert), and it’s not until he marries Italian model Lory del Santo and fathers a son, Conor, that he finds the strength to put down the bottle and (in his own words) “grow up.”

Sadly, Clapton fans know what’s in store for their hero, and what “it” brings is the diametrical opposite of peace and happiness. Indeed, it’s all one can do to stay put and watch, misty-eyed and lump-throated, as the next (and worst) tidal wave of tragedy rolls in. Blindsided by the sudden accidental death of 4-year old Conor (from whom he receives a postdated letter in the mail), Eric grapples with sobriety and finds salvation in song: He composes the tender “Tears in Heaven” for his boy…and opens the Crossroads treatment facility in Antigua (by auctioning 100 guitars) for others struggling with addiction. In 1992 he earns a Grammy for the acoustic-powered Unplugged, which features “Tears”…and a reworked “Layla.”

The documentary hopscotches over subsequent releases like From the Cradle, Pilgrim, and Reptileand omits other later projects (like the Cream reunion)—but the satisfying conclusion (with a touching thank-you from B.B. King) sees a clean-and-sober, Pattie-free Clapton enjoying salvation with a his wife (Melia), an older daughter (Ruth), and a batch of younger children.

If Life in 12 Bars isn’t the quintessential Clapton documentary (it certainly qualifies), it is an insightful, astute, emotionally-charged survey of the Stratocaster-slinger’s decades-long war with his personal demons. It’s almost as if Eric is on the therapist’s couch, talking through his obsessions and addictions. The psychological dissection is far more fascinating than another paint-by-numbers celebrity portrait or fret-board tutorial.   

Ume / Universal will issue the soundtrack to the film in 2-CD / digital format, with a 4-LP vinyl version to follow this July. The wealth of material includes studio, demo, and live versions of Clapton / Cream / Blind Faith gems “After Midnight,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “In the Presence of the Lord,” “White Room,” “Bell Bottom Blues” alongside peripheral tracks by George Harrison (“My Sweet Lord”), Muddy Waters (“My Life is Ruined”), Big Bill Broonzy (“Backwater Blues”), and more.