ERIC CLAPTON: A LIFE IN 12 BARS
SHOWTIME DOCUMENTARY FILMS
Watching Eric Clapton last September at Madison Square Garden was not only a stark contrast with the first time I saw him at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in April 1975 but also indicative of his life journey.
Back in 1975 Clapton played erratically with his back to the audience, staring at Pattie Boyd, saying nothing and obviously under the influence of drugs. The show was memorable merely for all the wrong reasons. Forty-two years later, a sober, healthy-looking Clapton played a superb set which demonstrated at times why early in his career fans called him God.
For a musician whose very livelihood was threatened recently by nerve damage he showed remarkable facility with flashes of the brilliance we have become accustomed to on many of his recordings. While the latest concerts were supposed to be ‘farewell’ shows there seemed to be no reason for him to quit.
The producer and director Lili Fini Zanuck’s documentary, Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars, traces Clapton’s career and deals with the many turning points: from his time with the Yardbirds and John Mayall through the death of his 4-year-old son Conor to the present.
Zanuck had the inside running on the making of this documentary as she had worked with Clapton previously when he provided music for her 1982 film Rush, including ‘Tears In Heaven,’ which was to go onto to win three Grammy Awards.
“He thought it was too personal,” recalled Zanuck, “but putting it on the soundtrack he felt was not hiding it because it didn’t draw attention to it but it actually became a huge hit. We’ve known each other all of these years and we’ve been friends.”
Zanuck says that Clapton asked her to make the documentary after he was approached by others who archiving material for a possible anthology. Zanuck says that Clapton was ‘nervous’ about having others involved so she agreed. In most cases when this happens the film can usually be skewed in favour of its subject.
“He never ever once stuck his nose into anything never asked me to change anything,” says Zanuck who strangely ended up using Gustavo Santaolalla the composer to do the score. (“The reason why that was such a great idea,” says Zanuck, “is because it’s very hard to have Eric’s music and then all of a sudden have some orchestral score. Gustavo’s music and the instruments blend in so beautifully with anything that I have of Eric’s that it really does have to do that.”)
The film uses a large amount of archival footage (along with Clapton’s voice) but Zanuck says there was not as much material as people might think because people were not as careful in preserving films and video as they are now. (“VHS masters are just garbage,” she adds, “Even the magicians who can like to fix these things couldn’t do anything”).
“Eric’s been performing since he was 17 years old,” says Zanuck. “He’s never kept anything. The only thing I was able to get from him, and were treasures for me, were these original drawings and paintings that he did as a young guy.”
Still, there was enough material to fill out 135 minutes and the film offers the best look so far at Clapton’s life and career. The child who discovered at the age of 9 that the people who raised him were not his parents but his grandparents went on to develop an obsession with the blues, joined the already successful Yardbirds at 18 and then, just turned 20, became a member of John Mayall’s legendary Bluesbreakers – his reputation established by the time he was 21!
However, the film is not going to please all Clapton fans. There is a lot of footage of Clapton’s first decade that will appeal to many people; however, it does not deal as well with the music after this era. Clapton had such a tumultuous life in the ‘70s and ‘80s – alcohol and drug addiction, the relationship with Pattie Boyd and George Harrison, the death of his son – that it is unavoidable that the film deals with these matters.
Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars will be shown on Showcase in February and will be available on DVD.