Eric Clapton opens up – even on his bizarre racist period

Lili Zanuck’s documentary doesn’t shy away from the musician’s darkest days

The name Zanuck carries weight in the movie business. The producer Daryl F Zanuck, an Oscar winner for All About Eve, was head of production at 20th Century Fox. His son Richard, also a Fox supremo, produced Jaws, The Verdict and Cocoon. When, in 1978, Lili Fini married Richard, she planned to be an editor. The Zanuck machine swept her elsewhere. A little over a decade later, as producer of Driving Miss Daisy, she became only the second woman to win a best picture Oscar.

"We were married 16 weeks after we met," she laughs. "My husband and his partner David Brown asked me to do things like go over legal briefs. Then he started taking me in for half a day. Three years later I realised I had a full-time job. I always tell young people: nobody needs you to go to a meeting with Robert Redford. They need you to do what they don't want to do."

Lili Fini Zanuck went on to coproduce such pictures as Muholland Falls, True Crime – and, in Ireland, with Morgan O'Sullivan – dragon romp Reign of Fire. In 1991 she directed the fine thriller Rush. Kids and other work got in the way. It has taken until now for her to direct a second theatrical feature: Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars. Did her old friend, who scored Rush, require inveigling to participate in a documentary on his own life?

“I didn’t need to persuade him,” she says. “Some friends were putting together a documentary, and he called me and said: ‘I don’t feel safe. I’d feel a lot better if you were on board.’”

It’s a tricky life. Clapton, who was raised in Surrey, was guitarist with The Yardbirds, Cream, and Derek and the Dominoes. He discovered later in life that the woman he thought was his sister was actually his mother. He was involved in a famously tense love triangle with great pal George Harrison and Pattie Boyd. There was booze and drugs. My generation remembers the grim years when, after endorsing Enoch Powell and complaining that Britain was becoming a “black colony”, he was banished to the deepest depths of unfashionability.

There’s a lot of uncomfortable stuff in Zanuck’s fine film. “I have known him for 25 years and we have a trust,” she says. “And because we had this trust we had very easy conversation. He also knows I am not going to sugar-coat it. My ambition was to be truthful, but not judgmental.”

Trauma and tension

Clapton is not known as the most effusive of men. But he proves surprisingly open in the picture. He talks us through the early days of the London blues scene. He still seems upset about the tension with George Harrison. The trauma concerning his mother hangs around.

“I once said to him: ‘If your mother had just left and let someone else adopt you, how much of this stuff would have happened to you? You wouldn’t have had an inferiority complex at school.’ All of these things happened because he was neither fish nor foul. He said: ‘Yeah. But there would have been no music.’”

That’s interesting. We often assume that trauma plays into creativity.

“For him, it definitely did affect it. The pain was important.”

Clapton’s mental and physical decline in the mid-1970s is hard to watch. His apparent grasp of racist politics – however brief – is all the stranger when you consider that he worshipped black musicians. It’s not just offensive; it seems slightly mad. Of course, he was heavily medicated at the time. In the film, a repentant Clapton struggles to understand what came over him.

“First of all, he now doesn’t even know who that person is,” she sighs. “That’s not a cop-out. Any time you try and excuse yourself, it makes it worse. We can see that from all these sexual scandals now. But he doesn’t try to excuse it. I’m not trying to excuse it. I don’t think he was thinking about black people. It’s one of those things we’re seeing right now: he felt he had an ‘immigrant problem’.”

Little Englander

Zanuck goes on to ponder the resurgence of the Little Englander mentality in the UK, where she spends most of her time. Clapton’s bizarre outbursts, which helped spur the Rock Against Racism movement, were connected with an earlier kickback against the nation’s status as “The sick man of Europe”.

“Now, there’s no distinction here. If you’re saying you don’t want a bunch of immigrants, that’s the same thing,” she shrugs. “More than the drug addiction, more than anything, that is the most unsettling thing in the movie for him.”

A Life in 12 Bars marks an impressive comeback to direction for Zanuck. It may win over even those unsure about Clapton's music. I wonder if she thinks the business has changed much for women since she won her Oscar.

"Well, more women have won since then. But, no, it's not better," she says. "I have never had a problem being taken seriously. So, I am not a great one to ask about that. But I thought: when a woman makes her Apocalypse Now we'll be recognised. That's what happened with Kathryn Bigelow."

She sounds like a woman of some confidence. It must have taken courage to join the Zanuck clan.

“Oh, I was so optimistic then,” she laughs. “I don’t think I anticipated how daunting it could be. But fortunately life comes at you one day at a time.”

THE FIVE ESSENTIAL CLAPTON TRACKS

Eric Clapton hasn't really been fashionable for 40 years, but his best is still very good. (None of these songs are Wonderful Tonight.)

5. Can't Find My Way Home by Blind Faith.
The eponymous Blind Faith LP is rightly infamous for its horrible cover of a naked young girl, but it does feature this gorgeous slinky Steve Winwood ballad featuring Clapton on acoustic.

4. For Your Love by The Yardbirds.
Clapton might hate to see this here. The Yardbirds shift from blues to pop with this hit caused him to fly the coop.

3. I Feel Free by Cream
Bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom. Oddly the first hit single by Cream was just as poppy as For Your Love. So much so that it's since turned up on car commercials.

2. Sunshine of Your Love by Cream
First Goodfellas reference. Cream's non-more-heavy classic plays as Robert De Niro gets suspicious in the bar.

1. Layla Parts 1 & 2 by Derek and the Dominoes.
Second Goodfellas reference. The instrumental coda to the riff-heavy first part plays as the bodies turn up.