Eric Clapton: A Life In 12 Bars Dir: Lili Fini Zanuck


If, like me, you were a fan of Eric Clapton’s work through Derek & The Dominoes, but lost interest with his 1970s solo records, this ambitious documentary may very well explain why that is.

Producer/director Lili Fini Zanuck has directed only one other feature film before this, 1991’s Rush, which, not coincidentally featured music by Eric Clapton in its soundtrack, including the song Tears In Heaven.

Now Zanuck attempts to tell Clapton’s own story. With the cooperation of Eric himself, the director has been given access to a treasure trove of personal audio and film clips from Clapton’s own collection. And so, music fans will delight in seeing scenes of Cream working in the studio, or Jimi Hendrix and Clapton hanging out together in the swinging sixties.

But this film delves deeply into Clapton’s personal life, his early family traumas, his addictions, his girlfriends and the tragic death of his young son.

Clapton early life was relatively bucolic until, at the age of nine, he learned that the couple who he thought were his parents were really his grandparent. His biological mother had given birth to Eric after a one night stand, then scarpered off to Canada.

This revelation hit the young boy hard and he retreated into a life revolving around listening to the blues and playing his guitar. The story becomes even more poignant when we learn that, when Clapton was a teen, his mother returned for a visit, only to reject a second, cruel time.

The remainder of the first part of this over-two hour film documents Clapton’s early musical achievements…joining The Yardbirds, gaining acclaim, then leaving, joining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, gaining acclaim, then leaving, forming Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, gaining acclaim, then leaving…you get the idea.

This part of the film features plenty of voice-over commentary (we never see any talking heads), from Clapton and many of his former bandmates. There’s plenty of great archival footage, my favourite being the scene from DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back where Dylan watches Clapton on TV while with The Bluesbreakers. He is blown away.

But as the 60s turns to the 70s and Cream turns to Blind Faith and Derek & The Dominoes, Clapton’s attention drifts from music and he spends considerable time and energy trying to convince Pattie Boyd to run off with him. Trouble is, Pattie is married to Eric’s best friend, George Harrison.

Initially, this story gives a fascinating insight into how Clapton’s mind works, especially thanks to the commentary from Boyd and Charlotte Martin, Clapton’s girlfriend at the time.

But Zanuck dwells on the topic longer than I felt it deserved while ignoring major musical events such as the release of Clapton’s first solo album and his involvement with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends.

There is quite a bit of coverage of Derek & The Dominoes and the writing and recording of Layla (written for Pattie), but after that, the music is completely ignored as Clapton’s life had been taken over by addiction, first to heroin, then alcohol.

And this explains why those solo albums from the 70s and 80s are so musically abysmal (sorry fans of Slowhand)…Clapton was trashed during the making of almost all of them.

His drunken on-stage antics are well-documented here…I personally witnessed Clapton in a severe state of inebriation during his 1974 tour promoting 461 Ocean Boulevard and it was pretty ugly.

And so, many of Clapton’s best-known albums barely get a mention. Instead we are taken to 1986 and the birth of his son Conor, again, part of another messy romantic situation, where he finally sobers up…and then to the tragic death of Conor  at age four due to a horrific accident.

At this point one expects Clapton to fall off the wagon, but the opposite is the case. Instead, Eric dedicates his life to Conor and is determined to live it clean and sober…a somewhat happy ending.

While I would have liked to have had more emphasis on the music, A Life In 12 Bars does quite a bit to explain who Eric Clapton is and why his musical career arc turned out the way it did. And while I’ll never want to hear songs such as the turgid Wonderful Tonight again, at least now I understand what conditions those song were recorded under.

Marty Duda

In Cinemas Feb 15th