Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars review – A fascinating chronicle

This portrait explains the roots of a pain that Clapton’s successful career did little to extinguish

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars
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Director: Lili Fini Zanuck
Cert: 15A
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Eric Clapton, Sylvia Clapton, Roger Waters, Pattie Boyd, Steve Winwood, B.B. King
Running Time: 2 hrs 14 mins

Oscar-winning producer Lili Fini Zanuck has clearly put the hours in on this candid biographical portrait of Eric Clapton. Contemporary fans may be a little disappointed with 12 Bars' shut-up-and-play-the-hits focus on the earlier years. But even agnostics are likely to get caught up in the drama of his painful upbringing and boozy, self-destructive years.

With a nod to the Asif Kapadia films Senna and Amy, Zanuck and her editor, Chris Ace, sculpt mostly from Clapton's own extensive archive. As with Kapadia films, the historical bent paradoxically lends the material an immediacy. Unlike these films, however, the legendary guitarist is on hand to provide what are often sorrowful recollections.

His “blissful childhood” in Surrey is disrupted, when, aged nine, he discovers that the parents who raised him are actually his grandparents. When he meets his biological mother and asks if he can move in with her and his half-siblings, she rejects him and insists that her other children are not his siblings. He retreats into drawing and guitar, and nurses a pain that a successful career with The Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos and as a solo artist does little to extinguish.

Complicated questions of musical appropriation and the news headlines from Clapton's life are sensitively handled. The tragic death of his son, Conor – the four-year-old fell from a 49th storey window in 1994 – and Clapton's marriage to George Harrison's ex-wife, Pattie Boyd – Harrison had been Clapton's best friend – are quietly and solemnly presented.

The guitarist is honest and most regretful about the souring of his early glory years when the graffiti read "Clapton is God". He himself still can't square his friendship with BB King and his transformation into a performer who was apt to throw bottles into crowds and proclaim his admiration for Enoch Powell.

Zanuck hasn't directed a feature since 1991's Rush, an underrated crime thriller in which Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric play undercover cops gone way too deep. Working with documentary veteran John Battsek (Listen To Me Marlon and Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden), she has crafted a film that, even with an extensive run time, remains a fascinating chronicle.