Sunday 14 January 2018

Forever man: "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars"

"CLAPTON IS GOD" read the legend daubed on a wall in North London's Arvon Road some time in the late 1960s, by which point Eric Clapton had been elevated to the pantheon of rock greats. With Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, her new documentary account of the guitarist's various highs and lows, the filmmaker Lili Fini Zanuck spends two hours in search of Clapton the man: evasive and elusive, muddled and vulnerable, often wobbly in both his judgement and movements - but unmistakably a stone-cold master of his instrument. It is, then, a film of some noteworthy, epoch-defining music, but its success for non-diehards may depend largely on how interesting you find technical mastery, and whether or not you believe it can be used to mitigate against some fairly shoddy, ill-considered behaviour. Not for the first time in recent weeks and recent movies, we're invited to weigh the art against the artist.

It's certainly fitting that Zanuck should choose to open with footage of Clapton paying video tribute to BB King, and end with King, in one of his final live appearances before his death in 2015, repaying the compliment: she's realised that the Clapton story forms another chapter in the wider history of the sometimes harmonious yet often fraught relationship between rock's white and black strands. So the biography begins: with Clapton the fair-haired Home Counties lad, born out of wedlock and abandoned by his mother at birth, finding an early friend in the Saturday morning radio show hosted by an uncle, a transmission that introduced him to the likes of Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. Just as myriad white boys have connected over the years with the anger, cussing and horniness of certain black rappers, his blues was to merge with theirs. 

Other influences fill the screen, as young Eric first picks up a guitar - performers as varied as Bismillah Khan and Little Walter - and, in due course, we get the footage of the emergent rock god palling around with Hendrix and Aretha. If it starts to seem as if Zanuck's setting something up, that's because she is: she knows that any honest Clapton movie will eventually have to address the 1976 gig in Birmingham when her subject let fly with a racist tirade in support of the anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell. (The tirade was to directly inspire the Rock Against Racism movement.) It's by no means a good look: the man who'd appropriated the sound of those he called "wogs" and "coons" now telling them, in no uncertain terms, to fuck off.

How did we (and he) get here? From the childhood photos of a stern-faced, inward-turned child through his deadeningly earnest Sixties interviews to the cover of August, his bestselling long-player of 1986, a certain humourlessness dogs the film's subject. "We thought the Beatles were wankers," Clapton confesses, by way of an explanation for his decision to quit The Yardbirds after the success of their Beatlesesque "For Your Love"; he leapt from there to John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, although the song used to soundtrack this shift - 1965's "Crocodile Walk" - isn't noticeably heavier or more authentic. Not for the last time, the framing and editing proves somewhat flattering to a subject whose motives are often far from entirely sympathetic. 

For one, Zanuck offers a soft-pedalled account of the Clapton-Harrison-Boyd affair, introducing into evidence Persian texts, a throwaway reference to the Beatle's philandering, and more details of Clapton's abandonment ("I was more on my own than I'd ever been"), but arguably he stole off with Boyd as he'd stolen off with Waters' guitar licks, splitting up a friend's marriage just as following his impulses had split up band after band. Of course, the film insists, the affair needed to happen so the soundtrack of every other movie (including this one) can build towards the agonised riffs of "Layla": you sense the art being used to justify the means. Such considered juxtaposition recurs elsewhere: the 1976 outburst is positioned at the end of a segment describing the star's descent into alcoholism, the implication being that it was the drink talking that night, not that something had been unstopped in the man.

Zanuck has fifty years of rock history at her disposal - decades of excess, waywardness and tragedy, much of it documented in attractive Kodachrome colours - and yet her film never grabs us by the lapels as Julien Temple's recent pop archaeologies have, or 2012's tempestuous Beware of Mr. Baker did. Life in 12 Bars settles into the steady rhythm of a VH1 primer early, and sticks to it for the next two hours, layering Clapton's offscreen (and distant-sounding) recollections over the archive gig footage, while ticking off the hits and highlights. Like many films on this scene's survivors, it palpably tails off once the countercultural battles are fought and lost and we reach the 1980s. We hear nothing of, say, "Behind the Mask", the most energetic single he'd released in years - though even that owed a debt to Ryuichi Sakamoto's Yellow Magic Orchestra; the recordings take second place to the women wooed and abandoned.

Only with the death of Clapton's four-year-old son Conor in 1991 - a genuine tragedy that by all accounts led the musician to sober and wise up, and eventually inspired his most personal hit ("Tears in Heaven") - can you feel Zanuck starting to get close to her otherwise standoffish subject. The lows of this life have been so low that it's a relief to see Clapton in relaxed late-life, smiling and playing with his now-extended brood. (To don my pop psychologist's hat for a moment: here, perhaps, is the family denied to him as a boy.) Somewhere behind the rote chronology sits an intriguing idea of Clapton as a Biblical figure - not a God, but something like a musical Job or Lot, granted one special power (advanced fretwork) but bedevilled in so many other respects. Had he been prepared to face Zanuck's camera and look the viewer in the eye, we might have had something truly revealing; as it is, we've wound up with the kind of fan-pacifier where the biography is often indistinguishable from special pleading.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is now playing in selected cinemas.

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