Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars review: the guitarist's wounded soul laid bare

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Clapton performing in the early Seventies Credit: Getty

Dir: Lili Fini Zanuck, 15 cert, 134 mins

Music saved me”, Eric Clapton says towards the end of this long, partially self-authored portrait. He’s talking specifically about the aftermath of his life’s worst tragedy – the death of his 4-year-old son Conor, who fell from the 53rd floor of a Manhattan high-rise hotel in March 1991. After this devastating blow, Clapton withdrew into solitude, and wrote his famous ballad, Tears in Heaven, which was partially – but not wholly – inspired by Conor’s death. “Would you know my name / if I saw you in heaven?” the song beseeches, in the slowest, most pain-filled lyrics of his career.

The song’s other inspiration was Rush, a neglected 1991 drama about two undercover narcotics cops, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric, who get in over their heads and become junkies. Clapton, no stranger to addiction himself, provided the entire score, with its powerfully mournful use of electric guitar – surely an influence on Michael Mann’s Heat, among other films – and it was on the CD release that Tears in Heaven was first included.

Lili Fini Zanuck directed that film, and also this one. You get the impression that her relationship with Clapton is close and trusting, which is what enables this, as a music doc, to reach parts that some others cannot. Clapton is frank about his years as a heroin addict, his gravitation onto booze – it’s been a life spent in many more than 12 bars, that’s for sure – and his various love affairs.

The most intense of these, which inspired not only the career peak of Layla but that entire album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, was intended as a epistle in musical form to the object of his long-unrequited devotion, Pattie Boyd, who had the misfortune to be married to his best friend, George Harrison. “I tried to give you consolation,” Clapton sings in Layla’s second verse, “When your old man had let you down. / Like a fool, I fell in love with you. / You’ve turned my whole world upside down.”

The song’s iconic guitar riffs and epic piano outro – unforgettable in Goodfellas – have become so familiar that most people probably don’t know how personal it was: I had no idea the “old man” was Harrison. When Clapton remembers playing the album straight through to Pattie, who couldn’t handle it and went home, it’s the film’s emotional high point. Layla deserves a spot up there in music lore with I’m a Fool to Want You, Frank Sinatra’s desperate, self-exposing love song about Ava Gardner, which he recorded in one take before fleeing the studio in tears.

The unsympathetic take on Clapton is that he’s the living epitome of dad rock, a steely technician who stole all his tricks from African-American blues. Zanuck’s film brings us closer to him and puts an obviously wounded soul up on screen, whose music seems more arresting for the life of pain behind it. From as early as his teens, he was desperately unhappy, raised by a grandmother he assumed was his mother, and rejected by the latter when he wanted her back. Heroin claimed him as soon as he could afford it, and then alcohol – cognac, mainly – lured him into a shambolic 1970s of playing slurred, half-hour-long sets, pissing off the punters, and perturbing his latest band-mates with these nightly antics.

During one such episode, at a Birmingham gig in 1976, he went off on a notorious xenophobic tirade from the stage, claiming “I used to be into dope, now I’m into racism”, that Enoch Powell was “a great man, speaking truth”, and that “black wogs and coons and Arabs” (and it gets worse) were “not welcome” on our shores. Zanuck spares her audience any of this transcription, just showing some news summaries from the next day. And a chastened Clapton, while largely blaming the outburst on what alcohol had done to him, admits to have fallen in with “fascist” and “semi-racist” views at the time. “Half of my friends were black!”, he says incredulously, as many a (semi-)racist has hamfistedly argued before.

The film touches but lightly on this incident – in some ways, it’s brave to go there at all. But the attempts at rehabilitation aren’t just a matter between Eric and the bottle. The film digs abundantly into his all-black influences – BB King, Blind Blake, Muddy Waters, Bill Broonzy – and shows him palling around with Hendrix, Sixties scenesters chewing the fat.

King returns his adulation, saying “I’ve never met a better man than my friend Eric Clapton” in the film’s feeble, gooey last section, a set of homilies about happy families, addiction initiatives and the vanquished demon of drink. Some biographies just can’t help being hostage to their subject. This one succeeds in making Eric Clapton surprisingly interesting, but only until until he turned his life around.