There is a weight of expectation that comes with cinema, and a huge disparity between watching the likes of this, a so-so by-numbers music doc, on, say, BBC4 and in a huge darkened room you’ve ventured out to for the night. ‘Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars’ is perfectly serviceable but without flourish, and doesn’t provide any cinematic punch.
It’s often a deadeningly conventional trawl through Clapton’s life and work, with much time spent lingering on still pictures, accompanied by audio narration from Clapton that sounds like it was recorded in a cupboard. The first hour is particularly noodly, presenting a lonely, isolated young Clapton finding solace in music – a defiant, uncompromising figure, bursting with integrity, admirably resistant to any industry nonsense. With success come some incredible collaborations, which lift the film – footage of Aretha Franklin smoking in the studio is amazing, and that of Clapton playing on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ for The Beatles is dynamite.
The film becomes more compelling as Eric’s personal life gets wilder. Love, anger and betrayal are palpable; the late ’60s and early ’70s, when he seemed to kill everything and start anew, are an exciting period. Then it gets ugly, as Clapton becomes a horrible burnout, his pain and misery compounded by addiction. There is some extremely frank footage here, and the candour is great. ‘In my lowest moments,’ he says, ‘the only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink any more if I was dead.’ Further on, there is real dread.
Clapton has led a fascinating life, and is a contradictory and inspiring figure. Save for a few moments, this film just doesn’t serve him well enough.