By Megna The Wise (Bangkok)
Happiness does not so often come by, sometimes people struggle for it, and just when it is about to hit the peak, everything crashes right in front of you. Oscar-winning director Lili Fini Zanuck’s documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars illustrates the life and career of a famous English guitarist, Eric Clapton, with the said pattern of mediocrity told in points of view of those who knew him best—B.B.King, George Harrison, and more. Zanuck focuses on how the emotional effects of these major events can be channeled through Clapton’s music.
This long documentary about the life and music of Eric Clapton offers audience several climaxes, some are heartbreaking, others are heartwarming—though mostly the first one. When I was listing major events from the film to write this review, I used blue letters for “happy events” and red for “sad” ones. The result ended up to be a full red page of paper, as I counted through a total of twenty two major plots, only six made it to be the color blue.
Grew up happily in Surrey, United Kingdom by a couple whom he discovered later to be his grandparents, high-school Eric Clapton finally met his biological mother who got pregnant with him from a one-night-stand then left to Canada for a new life. With so many questions and unresolved feelings, Eric asked with hope “Can you be my mom?” He was rejected brutally and twice again when he saw the woman years later just to hear her tell the son of her new husband that Eric was not his brother. These incidents had left Eric no choice but to go to music. He kept playing guitar all day all night. “I would hear him playing at 3 in the morning, and he has school the next day, too.” said Rose Clapp, Eric’s grandmother. Clapton said that playing blues is the only way he can make the pain go away.
His talent at the blues guitar made him a legend. The decision to join the band Cream as a guitarist changed his life greatly for the first time. He started to go on concerts, the band’s albums were the hit of the country as well as in the United States. Eric met his first girlfriend and “everything was magical,” said the girlfriend in her interview “but after some time, he started to leave on his music tour for long periods of time. It’s hard to have faith when every girl would throw herself at him.” she added. Having that embedded dysfunctional family in life is, most of the time, negative. Eric’s love life had been confusing, especially when he would associate romantic relationships with maternal ones, his need for a mother’s love is a primal driving force, and that need doesn’t diminish with unavailability—it coexists with the terrible and damaging understanding that the one person who is supposed to love you without condition doesn’t.
With all that considered in mind, Eric fell deeply in love with the greatest love of his life Patti Boyd, who was his best friend George Harrison’s wife. Being impulsive as he was, Eric pushed this desire to the limit, he never stopped calling, sending letters, and writing songs for years until he finally got with her. This was not a happy ending yet. She then left him the next day and go back to her husband. Eric’s depression worsened as his good friend Jimi Hendrix passed away. “I wasn’t upset because he died, but because he didn’t take me with him. I was so fucking angry.” said Eric as his voice was cracking. From occasion studio drugs, Eric got extremely addicted to cocaine and alcohol that he had to disappear from the media for quite some time.
His son was the motivation that made him quit all the drugs. He decided that for once, he wanted to be a responsible person and to do something good. As the sky was brightening up for him, a big storm came crashing every single thing in his wake. His wife called saying that his son Cornor accidently fell out of a high building in New York just one day after they had gone to a circus show and had a good time. If that is not sad enough, while he was going through mourning letter from fans, he found a deleted letter from his son written: “Can’t wait to see you again. Love, Corner.” Instead of taking the letter as a negative outcome, Eric decided to stand up and help people. He wrote the famous song Tears In Heaven dedicated to his son and raised charities to help people who are addicted to drugs. Eric is now happily married with five children.
Considering that Eric is now seventy three years old, creating a documentary using actual footages and not a professional film has its difficulty. Surprisingly all the clips and voice-overs are in high quality, especially the footages from the 1970’s that have a classic vibe to them—not too grainy, just the right amount of fadeness.
The film itself builds up a series of parts concluding how a particular piece of music was made. At one point, the film had been building up a plot of a tangled love affair between Clapton and his best friend’s wife Patti Boyd, and as the story was going smoothly, the “couple” finally crossed over the moral line—Patti suddenly decided to leave Clapton to go back to her husband George Harrison. The film intentionally allows the audience to grief for him at this moment, more so by adding spoken words from the protagonist himself; “Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?” cried Clapton out of hopelessness as he kneeled and watched Patti walked away. This specific line will hit immediately for those who listen to his music, but for ordinary audience, it was explained by slowly playing the song Bell Bottom Blues, which the mentioned line is a part of, in the background with a footage of the star mourning and making music in a recording room. The lyric eventually comes and that is the climax of the plot.
Zanuck indeed made this documentary into a skillful piece of filmmaking. Unlike traditional Hollywood films where a story consists of a set of rising actions, climax, and ending with a resolution. Since the documentary includes numerous stories, Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars has the consistency of these sets of actions throughout the film, only they get more intense each time. One remarkable example of this would be towards the end of the film, Eric’s kid son died and he took the sadness to write the song Tears in Heaven. As the film show him going on stage, a soft guitar melody starts to play in the background and the song was sang, “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” At this far point, audience would notice what the film is trying to convey; a message about Eric’s son.
The lyrics continues “…I must be strong and carry on ‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.” One does not have to be an Eric Clapton fan to know what this is about, it wraps up his life so well. After all the impulsive things he had done, after being addicted to drugs and alcohol, Eric knew he would not be considered in a good religious place (heaven). But his son was the one that made him stop to make a difference with his young and pure love, one could say that he would definitely be in heaven. The only thing Eric can do to contribute to that love is to carry on. A scene of Eric Clapton giving a speech about his rehab charity comes after and that is, for the first time is this chaotic life of his, a happy ending. It was undeniably an emotional movie. It brought tears in the audience’s eyes including myself.
However, considering that quite some people do not have a positive view towards Eric Clapton due to drug usage and racial epithets despite his legendary talent, it is inevitable not to think that this documentary aims to fix his bad reputation by showing emotional events explaining why Eric had gone to drugs and done bad things; having an affair with a married woman and cursing at black people. Though most people would say that being intoxicated is not an excuse to do such things, if anything it is irresponsible of him to consume drugs at all. It is utterly disappointing for some fans to see a man who grew up and has a career based on “black people’s music” saying such negative things about them. The incident was incredibly briefly mentioned in the documentary, so briefly that audience without the knowledge of this incident would not know what exactly happened. But scenes of Clapton having good times with black people were plenty, ending with a famous black musician B.B. King’s speech about how much he admired Clapton. Eric himself explained in the film that he had had friends and lovers who were people of color, that day he was so drunk he said bad things. He is also angry at himself.
All in all, I would recommend this film. It is a good thing to watch not only for Eric Clapton’s fans but also music fans in general or even someone who needs a heartwarming consultation with a bit of faith in humanity restoration. It might not be an action movie of excitement but it certainly reveals some things you did not know before, and the actual excitement comes when you think you might know what happened because Eric Clapton is a real person and not a written character but this is the first time some information is declared. It is a good classic footage with nostalgic background music.