David M. Benett/Getty Images
Where to Watch: Showtime
Premiere: Feb. 10, 9 p.m. ET (available on streaming)
Stars: Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Pattie Boyd
People used to write “CLAPTON IS GOD” on graffiti walls. But even those immune to Eric Clapton’s musical allure likely would admit his life is a damn good story, especially as told by Lili Fini Zanuck, 63, the first woman to win a best picture Oscar (for producing Driving Miss Daisy). She did the 1992 video for “Tears in Heaven,” Clapton's touching hit about his son’s death, and he provided tunes for her first directing effort, the 1991 feature Rush.
The trust they built was necessary, because Clapton’s past is painful. Like John Lennon’s, his art was shaped by mother trouble. Clapton, 72, got the worse deal. Each mom left her son to be raised by relatives, then came back and messed up his head, hurting him into becoming an artist and rock star. Yoko Ono once told me her bond with Lennon “was rooted in the childhood fear of being alone,” caused by Julia Lennon’s absence. But Clapton embraced loneliness, and angrily demanded it after his mother abandoned him. She wasn’t a free spirit like Julia, but a cold, critical person.
Clapton went deep inside himself and into American blues records, whose melancholy resonated with his own. Zanuck's documentary Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars features interviews with Muddy Waters and B.B. King, whom Clapton worshipped as a child. He then launched to mainstream fame when he became a rock god. We see the Little Walter harmonica performances that inspired Clapton’s innovative guitar sound, and the meticulously detailed drawings the blues-obsessed kid made as an art student who could have had a future in that field.
The thing is, if his mom had not come back into his life in his teen years and tormented him incredibly nastily, he might have become a successful commercial artist you never heard of. His loving grandma, who raised him, says in the film, “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 fowl.” Clapton’s sardonic response: “Yeah, but there would have been no music.”
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Clapton is too shy and inward to be a good subject for most interviewers, but Zanuck draws him out. Her film makes sense of his bizarre early career moves by revealing the psychology behind them. Of course he abandoned his first hit band — the Yardbirds — the day their huge single “For Your Love” was released, leaving them in the lurch, because after his mother experience Clapton vowed never to trust anyone again, to go it alone and do things his own way.
Then he joined John Mayall’s band, and quit before their record came out to join a new group, Cream, whose drummer Ginger Baker was as talented as Clapton and far crazier: In the first scene of the must-watch 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, he breaks the director’s nose with his cane. It’s fun to see Cream in concert, between fistfights. The archival footage Zanuck nimbly edits makes you understand why the astoundingly loud, jazz-infused Cream became the top rock touring act of 1967-68.
More intimate is the section of the film about Clapton’s doomed romance with George Harrison’s wife Pattie Boyd. Harrison was Clapton’s best friend, as evident in footage of Clapton helping the Beatles record “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Paul McCartney does a little dance, as if he’s verklempt that godlike Clapton has joined them. Harrison was less delighted when Clapton declared his feelings for Boyd in a love letter with remarkably precise handwriting, and when he poured his passion into the masterpiece “Layla”: “I tried to give you consolation/ When your old man had let you down./ Like a fool, I fell in love with you,/ Turned my whole world upside down.”
In the film, Clapton mutters, “Didn’t work.” Boyd refused to leave her husband for him. But Harrison’s massive unfaithfulness finally drove her away, and she relented. She inspired another Clapton hit, “Wonderful Tonight,” about her maddening behavior the night of McCartney’s big annual party: She kept changing outfits, making him say, “You look wonderful tonight, now can we get to the party before it’s over?”
Zanuck honestly but gently covers Clapton’s next phase, when he sank into alcoholism, heroin addiction and anti-immigrant bigotry. As the grownup Clapton says in the film, reflecting on his lowest moment, this was illogical, since half his friends were black. He was simply out of his mind for a while, and his regret is affecting.
Thrillingly, Clapton bounced back from moral and physical ruin, and his volatile love life produced a son, Conor. Zanuck shows how this forced him to grow up at a late age. And when Conor, 4, fell out an open window of a New York apartment, Clapton not only managed to avoid slipping back into addiction, but expressed his grief in the immortal “Tears in Heaven.” At last, Clapton became a success as a man, not just as a musician and patron of far more than a dozen bars.
It was the bonding experience between Zanuck and Clapton then that made Life in 12 Bars possible. It’s not as anarchically fun as Beware of Mr. Baker, but it’s more pensive and thoughtful, a fit tribute to a life that involved way too much crawling across the floor and begging for love by a guy ill-equipped for years to return it. Except for the 18 Grammy awards, at least half of his life was all wrong. But, as Zanuck's art demonstrates, it's all right.