Quite the most striking thing about Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is its chronicling of the evolution of the guitarist’s hairstyle throughout his life, and the way its constant revision so accurately mirrors the changing modes of popular culture: a perfect early mod cut growing out into a bubble perm and then an early-70s stoner straggle and through countless other stages until reaching the present-day elderly rockandroller look, of which there were many versions in the audience at the Richmond Odeon last night.
Whatever you think of Clapton’s music (and I was never a fan of that style of blues-rock guitar playing), he always had great hair — and he knew it. It’s unsurprising that a strikingly emotional moment in Lili Fini Zanuck’s film occurs when, on a visit to his estranged mother and her husband on a Canadian army base in Germany in his mid-teens, he is forced to have it cut short. No man of roughly Clapton’s generation who lived through a similar ordeal in his own adolescence will fail to recognise that excruciating, almost life-threatening humiliation.
The walk to the cinema took me past the site of the old Railway Hotel opposite Richmond station, a key location in the history of the Thames Delta. It was in the back room of those premises that the Yardbirds made their first impression on the public, succeeding the Rolling Stones as the resident band at Giorgio Gomelsky’s Crawdaddy Club and allowing Clapton’s extraordinary magnetism to emerge.
The voice of the Yardbirds’ Chris Dreja is one of many heard in the documentary. Another from that period is the late sculptor Ben Palmer, the pianist in the Roosters, Clapton’s first band, and clearly a powerful influence on the sensibility of a young man who, during his year at Kingston Art College, was reading Baudelaire and Steinbeck while discovering the music of Blind Blake and Big Bill Broonzy. Clapton’s mother, his sister and his grandmother (who brought him up as her son) are also heard.
But it’s the years of superstardom and addiction that are the film’s real priority, and where it becomes repetitive to the point of tedium. We hear from some of the principal figures of Clapton’s life in the ’70s and ’80s — notably Bobby Whitlock, his keyboard player, and Pattie Boyd, his muse — at what seems like inordinate length, accompanied by endlessly repeated home-movie clips and stills. These are deployed with only the most cack-handed grasp of the lessons taught by the innovative documentarist Ken Burns to a generation of directors in the creative use of the combination of a rostrum camera and limited visual material. In terms of Clapton’s musical history and the influences that reshaped it, the complete absence of any mention of Music from Big Pink, J. J. Cale, the Delaney and Bonnie tour of 1969 or the Pete Townshend-directed Rainbow comeback concert of 1973 seems a bit strange.
Nevertheless there are many affecting sequences. They include a brief clip of Clapton crossing a London street and getting into his Mercedes 600 in the company of his then fiancée and fellow junkie, the ill-fated Alice Ormsby-Gore, vividly evoking the darker side of the lives of the jeunesse dorée of the late ’60s, and the reconstruction of the death of his four-year-old son in a fall from the 53rd-floor window of a New York hotel in 1991. His dreadful racist outburst on stage in Birmingham in 1976, after brandy and wine had taken over from heroin, is not glossed over; others may disagree, but to me it seems consistent with what we know about the radically distorting effect of an immense alcohol consumption on his personality at the time (Boyd is eloquent on that subject).
It’s good that Clapton is living through the golden sunset of a settled family life and the fine work done by his Crossroads charity to rescue others from addiction. As far as the film goes, however, I’d have been happier staying at home and listening to the only two records of his that I ever play: the sublimely sentimental “Wonderful Tonight”, a song that absolutely hits its chosen spot, and, more seriously, the Unplugged version of “Old Love”, where in both his voice and his playing you can hear echoes of the sensitive, troubled boy whose instinctive love of the blues earned him a ride on a roller-coaster that he was lucky to survive.
* Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars is in cinemas from January 12. The Richmond Odeon screening was supposed to include the live transmission of a Q&A between Jools Holland and Clapton taking place on stage at the South Bank; some technical problem blacked it out, but neither explanation nor refund was offered.