New documentary at the British Film Festival charts the life of the guitar ‘God’!
By Brian Wise
Revered as one of the great guitarist, Eric Clapton‘s path to fame came after a relatively long apprenticeship and huge commercial success arrived not with the blues for which he was renowned but for several ballads that hit the mainstream charts. After playing with The Yardbirds for several years Clapton joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers which prompted the appearance of the graffiti ‘Clapton is God’ all over London. Forming the ‘supergroup’ Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce produced some hit singles and several acclaimed albums but when that combination fell apart Clapton then founded Blind Faith with Baker and Steve Winwood. At one point, The Beatles considered recruiting him when George Harrison briefly quite the group (his friendship with Harrison would make a film in itself).
Later, he was to go on tour with Delaney & Bonnie and formed Derek & The Dominos with Duane Allman. He seemed a reluctant frontman but his eponymous debut solo album, produced by Delaney Bramlett, finally came out in July 1970. The rest as they say is history – but certainly not a straightforward one. Clapton’s life was as tumultuous as the blues songs he played. However, his 20 studio albums have consistently charted in the US Top 20 and his Unplugged album of 1992 sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and the acoustic version of ‘Layla’ along with the ballad ‘Tears In Heaven’ (Inspired by the death of his son) were both No.1 hit singles in the USA. Clapton’s success finally matched his reputation.
In 2016, Clapton revealed that he was suffering from peripheral neuropathy which made it painful for him to play guitar. However, this year he played four concerts in New York and Los Angeles, despite the fact that in 2015, after his 70th birthday celebrations, he declared that he would probably not tour again.
Seeing him in New York at Madison Square Garden in September was a revelation. Clapton appeared to be playing as fluently as ever across a selection from across his career. The taciturn Clapton let his guitar do the talking and it certainly appeared to be saying that he was good for a few more years yet.
So, it is interesting to watch this new documentary on Clapton’s life in the light of the fact that while his career has slowed down his talent seems undiminished.
Oscar-winning producer Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy), who directed Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars, also saw Clapton’s shows this year and agrees that the guitarist was still in form. Zanuck (yes she is a member of that famous film family) has an association with Clapton that goes back more than 25 years. Asked by Clapton to make the film she features interviews with Clapton and his family, friends, musical collaborators, peers and heroes. While there is a lot of archival footage, the process of putting the film together was not as easy as it might seem – and due to Clapton’s shyness she had to work with a subject who was reluctant to appear as a talking head.
Your association with Eric goes way back, doesn’t it, more than about a quarter of a century, because he scored your first feature.
Yes, it does. I mean, of course, when you say ‘quarter of a century,’ I almost ready to deny that. Twenty-five years sounds so much younger. But he scored my movie Rush, and that’s how we met. It was the year after his son died. And ‘Tears in Heaven’ was on my soundtrack, because he felt at the time that he would never release ‘Tears in Heaven’. He thought it was too personal. But putting it on the soundtrack, he felt was not hiding it but it just didn’t draw attention to it. I guess that says what he knew was going to happen to the success of the film. It was on the album and actually became a huge hit when he did Unplugged. But we’ve known each other all of these years and we’ve been friends.
How did this project come about? What inspired you to do this documentary?
Well, he asked me. What happened is he was being approached by some people who had been archiving things about him for a possible anthology, and then he was approached to do it as a documentary or something like that. So when he called me, he said, “There’s all this talk and I’m really nervous about it. But would you get involved?” So, I said, “Well, I’m coming to London next week. Let’s meet.”
So we did. I said if it’s not a messy situation, which it ended up not being, I said I’d be more than happy to. I would have never asked him to do something like this, but he was asking me, which lets you know that I was going to have a certain amount of, not freedom, but it wasn’t as if I was, this is the unauthorised [biography]. So I said yes.
He never, ever once stuck his nose into anything. Never asked me to change anything, nothing. The only suggestion he had was an incredible one, which is to use Gustavo Santaolalla, the composer, to do the soundtrack. The reason why that was such a great idea is because it’s very hard to have Eric’s music and then all of a sudden have what? Some orchestral score? Gustavo’s music and the instruments blend in so beautifully with anything that I have of Eric that it really does enhance the movie.
You would have had a massive amount of archival material to choose from. It must have been quite an effort to sift through all that and decide on the structure of the documentary.
Well, honestly, it was a little bit of the reverse. There wasn’t that much. Now when you see the film, there’s a lot, but to find this was unbelievably difficult. First of all because people have ruined the film, meaning they may have had 8 mm at some point, home films, and then in the ’80s they decided to make it VHS and that’s the master now. The master, the VHS master, is just garbage. So quite often, you would get so excited that you were going to get some bootleg footage from a concert or something, but even the magicians who can fix these things couldn’t do anything.
So that was a very, very big problem. At that time nobody took a selfie. So when you were recording with Aretha Franklin or whomever, you didn’t say, “Can I get a group shot?” A lot of very important things had never been documented because it just wasn’t what you did then.
Eric’s been performing since he was 17 years old. He’s never kept anything. The only thing I was able to get from him that were treasures for me were these original drawings and paintings that he did as a young guy.
It was a real, real hunt. I don’t even know how these things were done before the internet. I mean, I just can’t even imagine how you would go to different libraries. I don’t even know how. I just don’t get it at all, because it was so hard. It took three years with everything available, archivists, things that had been found. It’s really hard.
The title is Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars, which not only refers to the origins of his music and where he started playing, but also of course the blues itself. Obviously, putting all that footage together and you also had to intercut that with lots and lots of interviews, some of which are archival and some of which you’ve obviously gone out and got yourself.
Pretty much all of the interviews are a combination of old, some that were done by these people who had first approached Eric. They were archiving things. They also worked on the Crossroads concerts with him. So a lot of the old guitars and things like that they archived. And, I mean, they interviewed musicians when they were coming to perform. So there was kind of a wealth of that, but they weren’t necessarily asking the questions that I needed.
I had to go back and interview people but a lot of the interviews are mixed. It’s stuff that came from an original interview, maybe tidbits, and then combined with things that I went back and got.
Eric’s had quite a tumultuous life. How did you decide how to balance the documentary in terms of the subject matter, dealing with the music but also dealing with his personal struggles and personal battles?
Well, I didn’t start out knowing what I was doing, as it were; because yes, we know these basic high points and low points in his life, but obviously I was hoping to open this up in a way with information you didn’t know and with Eric looking at things in his own right that he hadn’t shared. I was able to do that because he and I had a basic element of trust from our friendship and having worked together and just liking each other.
But as for the story, I didn’t start with an idea that I had to back into. I started by allowing myself to discover what was out there, how he felt. There’s a combination of how he feels now, of course, after 30 years in recovery and a staunch supporter of AA, and how he felt at that time. Quite often when we were doing this, I would have to remind him, “This isn’t how you felt at that time.” Fortunately for me, he could actually take himself back emotionally, which is very interesting. I think part of being an artist is that that pain is never really buried.
“Quite often when we were doing this, I would have to remind him, “This isn’t how you felt at that time.”
That’s what made it really rich for me, and it took me down streets, as it were, that I would have never anticipated. So the balance? I don’t think the balance is great because I only had two hours, so there’s big musical events that I didn’t get to cover at all. I have them, but all of a sudden the movie would have been four hours, and that’s not what anybody asked me to do. The whole Delaney & Bonnie and all of these things that ended up making huge changes in his music life aren’t in there, and then there’s a whole period of time that I cover in a kind of montage-y way only because there wasn’t enough time. I would have needed to do a seven-hour miniseries to cover it properly.
I had to try to balance everything out, the music, his life, it all to fit within the two hours. So of course there’s things that aren’t in the movie that I would love to share or to have done a longer version of. My editor, Chris King, had done the Amy Weinstein documentary. She lived until she was 27 years old. Eric’s 73. You really need time to tell that full a story. I did the best I could.
Of course, you’re aware of the considerable number of people who are in the camp of Clapton is God. I’m wondering who you were thinking about in terms of the audience when you’re making this documentary. Were you thinking about the hard-core fans? Were you thinking about people who perhaps had maybe less of a fanatical interest, the general public? That would have been an important consideration in determining what you included in the documentary.
Well, actually not really because Showtime bought this having seen one hour of it for the USA. My goal was to make an interesting movie with as much information that you would be interested in and that would entertain you, because luckily for me, I’m not responsible for selling it. Even now, I don’t know exactly who that audience is because, fortunately for me, I don’t have to market it.
There are quite a few young people who don’t know who Eric is. So, obviously I don’t know that they’re necessarily going to see it. I know young people who know who he is but don’t really know his story that I’ve shown the film to and are absolutely fascinated. I’m hoping it will find its audience. Obviously, I’m hoping I can satisfy the hard-core fans. God knows I want that, but how it finds its additional audience will be up to people marketing, because I don’t really know. As I said, there are young people who don’t know. You can start referencing things in the ’80s that they don’t know. So we’ll see.
It’s interesting watching the documentary having seen Eric just a couple of months ago in New York at Madison Square Garden. Of course, he’s had his recent health problems. There were rumours that these would be his final concerts but he looked in terrific shape and he was playing as brilliantly as ever.
Yes, you know, he’s been asked that, and he says, “Well, I’ve been saying it’s my last show since The Yardbirds.” I don’t think these are his last shows. He really enjoys playing. The thing that he had a couple of years ago with his health is over. He’s in very, very good form. I think, like a lot of people, he likes to know that he’s the boss of that decision, but I don’t think he’s … You didn’t see him for the last time. Let’s hope not.
You give a really interesting picture of a complex man. Is that how he comes across to you when you’ve met him and when you were talking to him and interviewing him? He’s a very complex character. Very shy, too.
Yes, he is. I mean, everybody that kind of met him through this process, the Showtime people, the whatever, they were all so surprised by how he is in life, because in life he has quite a good sense of humour. He is very shy. He’s very humble and he’s quite enjoyable. But in the 25 years that I’ve known him, it didn’t start that way. He was saying to me … He’s been sober now 30 years. He was saying the first 10 years of his sobriety he just was a drunk who wasn’t drinking, like they say a dry drunk. All of the emotional inability that he had to form relationships, to hold relationships and all that, was still there. It’s not as if everything changed. He was just sober.
He says when I met him, he said, “That was just a sober version of the drunk.” You get it. And he said it took a long time, and I can actually……. now that he said that I can actually track, thinking about it, because it wasn’t easy at the beginning. You just didn’t go into conversation with him. So I know exactly what he’s saying. Over 25 years, our relationship changed drastically and, of course, after the documentary, it’s gone to an entirely different level because there isn’t any reason in life to delve this deeply with anybody. And even things that he had forgotten that I would interview his aunt, who would tell me a story and then I’d go back to Eric and he would say, “I had forgotten that.” It was something very painful.
This isn’t a normal kind of relationship once you start the documentary process and you’re talking all the time. That was another reason why I chose to not film anything. The filming in the movie that I’ve done is so secondary, because all of these interviews were done with just the mic. There was none of the concern of let’s cut or let’s this. No, we would sit in a room. The mic would be in place. The sound guy would be out in the hall. And we would just talk until we were done for that day. That made things easier for him by a long shot.
Eric Clapton: Life In 12 Bars is screening at the British Film Festival across Australia now.
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