Blu-ray Review: Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

By , Contributor
A tremendous effort by director Lili Fini Zanuck and Eric Clapton, Life in 12 Bars is that rare rock documentary that goes well beyond the hagiography style frequently adopted by "official" filmed bios. Too often we get basically a Wikipedia entry fleshed out with some performance clips, mixed with endless praise by contemporaries and disciples—many with a tenuous connection to the subject.

Life in 12 Bars, made with the participation and approval of Eric Clapton, spends two hour and twelve minutes exploring the triumphs and tragedies of Clapton's life and career in startlingly down-to-earth terms. Ultimately a celebration of Clapton's artistry, director Zanuck has entirely eschewed the formula which dictates that music legends be constantly showered in praise by critics, other musicians, and sometimes even fans. We also don't see, as Zanuck explains in a bonus interview, current 'talking head' footage of Clapton or anyone else. The visuals in the film are vintage photos, vintage interviews, vintage performance clips, vintage... well, you get the idea. It keeps the viewer grounded in the period, which of course in Clapton's case spans the '60s until the present.

Much of Life in 12 Bars is actually quite downbeat, which again sets it apart from the typical rose-tinted rockumentary. And especially for those who may love Clapton's music but haven't necessarily kept up with the in's-and-out's of his personal life, this could all very well be revelatory. Zanuck takes a rather unflinching look at Clapton's often-discussed, but rarely this viscerally-depicted, battles with substance abuse. The film reaches a heartbreaking climax with the tragic passing of Clapton's son in 1991 and the music it inspired (most notably the worldwide chart success "Tears in Heaven").

Refreshingly, 12 Bars does not present Clapton as a sort of otherworldly deity (no affirmations of the old "Clapton is God" graffiti). The film offers up a dry-eyed version of Clapton as a survivor of great adversity who has continued to hone and refine his art, playing better and crafting stronger, more consistent material as he career progressed (notably after sobering up). Clapton appears to have allowed an "open book" format, with even his controversial, drunken, racist onstage tirade (a byproduct of very out-of-control times in the '70s) not ignored. There's also some hard-won praise from friend, lifelong influence, and sometime-collaborator B.B. King to reaffirm the strength of Clapton's character even after some viewers might be inclined to question it.

Eagle Rock's Blu-ray offers a 24-minute bonus interview, conducted by Jools Holland following Life in 12 Bars' British premiere, with Clapton and Lili Fini Zanuck. The interview occurs live onstage directly following a screening, and as such makes a perfect follow up to viewing the feature film on Blu-ray.

Eric Clapton life in 12 bars BD.jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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