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The Clapton movie

Eric Clapton film

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.

53 Comments Post a comment
  1. The apotheosis of Clapton ranks as one of the great cultural hypes of this (and the last) century. In a world of John McLaughlin, Pat Martino, and Bireli Lagrene, Mike Stern, etc., his celebrity bewilders.

    January 11, 2018
    • GuitarSlinger #

      …. overall I’d tend to agree but with three major exceptions . First … the entire ‘ Cream ‘ adventure … second … Clapton’s Derek & the Dominos era .. third being the ” Unplugged ” album …

      Which is to say you can bury yourself in the pedantic of JazzHoledom .. ignoring talent such as Clapton at his best if you must . But it is your loss

      But Bireli Lagrene and Micheal Stern … in the same breadth as McLaughlin and Martino ? Suffice it to say y’alls in serious need of an aesthetic adjustment

      January 11, 2018
      • Lagrene and Stern may or may not be in the McLaughlin/Martino league – but all are superior to Clapton.

        January 17, 2018
    • Joe Glaysher #

      Sadly Clapton found that he could do what he wanted to do as well as he wanted to do it and never wanted to do more – a career devoid of the risk taking that is a necessary ingredient of the creative life.

      January 15, 2018
      • Sounds right – but I don’t know how high his talent ceiling rose.

        January 17, 2018
  2. Another lovely piece of writing Richard. I now look forward to seeing the film with a suitably critical eye. But surely the biggest question about it lies in the subtitle ‘Life in 12 Bars’. Only 12?

    January 11, 2018
  3. Billy Budis #

    What a perfect opening paragraph! I’m still chuckling inwardly …

    January 11, 2018
  4. Great review Richard. Not mentioning Big Pink and the Band seems like a terrible blunder as I always thought their ‘homespun’ image was a big influence on EC, not just musically but also on the way he presented himself.

    January 11, 2018
    • GuitarSlinger #

      1) All roads lead to Dylan and the Band … from their influences on the likes of Clapton … to the Beatles finally coming into their own rather than staying on course as a Buddy Holly pastiche band … to the Grateful Dead evolving beyond psychedelia to roots based jam band .. to Dire Straights Janis Joplin etc etc – et al .

      2) If you’d bother to delve a bit more deeply into the history and music of the Band you’d realize that ‘ homespun ‘ was the polar opposite of what both their music and their image was all about .

      January 11, 2018
      • Dear GuitarSlinger — I know you have strong opinions, and it’s usually interesting to hear them, but I’m going to ask you stop addressing other people on this blog in rather insulting terms. They’re entitled to their opinions, too, and this is not the place to contest them. And, as it happens, Chris Charlesworth is completely right about the “homespun” thing and your comment is utterly unjustified. If you carry on in that vein, I’m going to start deleting your replies as soon as they arrive. All of them, even the non-contentious ones. RW

        January 11, 2018
  5. Dennis Muirhead #

    I’ve never asked you why you don’t like Cream. Is it because you were never a fan of Clapton’s style of blues-rock guitar playing? He’s a limited player especially to the ears of someone who listens to jazz and blues. But I agree about “Wonderful Tonight”, the perfect way to start an evening with one’s partner. I’ve always loved Cream mainly because of Jack Bruce’s playing, singing and songwriting (with Pete Brown). I wish Jack had played more jazz as in Lifetime.

    I’m not sure I want to see the film and all those hairstyles.

    January 11, 2018
    • saverio pechini #

      I’m with you about Lifetime , easily my favourite band . I wish the then announced concert by them plus Miles and EC in the U.S.A.actually happened…(Could have been a mess : who knows?)
      As for “limited player” : listen to his solo on Do What You Like by Blind Faith live at a festival in Wisconsin in ’69.

      January 11, 2018
      • Dennis Muirhead #

        I heard Lifetime at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon and have never recovered or heard anything quite like it since. I heard Blind Faith in Hyde Park and have enjoyed their music ever since. I haven’t heard the live album and will give it a listen. Thanks.

        January 11, 2018
    • Dennis — Re Cream: I always found it amazing that a guy who had idolised Phil Seamen could play in such a tiresomely thumping manner. I’d rather listen to Bartók played backwards than “Toad”. The contrast with Mitch Mitchell’s playing could not be greater. Jack Bruce, a fine bass player in other contexts, was wasted in an environment that prioritised easy climax-building and meaningless virtuosity. Having said that, I like “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, “White Room” and “Badge”, which are songs rather than jams. I don’t think what Cream was either creative improvisation or good rock and roll. Or anything interesting in between! (You asked me! … and you should probably see the film.)

      January 11, 2018
      • Colin Harper #

        I too have always been intrigued by the veneration around Ginger Baker –
        and not only from himself! I wasn’t ‘there’ at the time, so one can only have an opinion in retrospect. And yet it really does just seem like a lot of thudding and thumping; not an ounce of swing in it – and very hard to see any influence from Phil Seamen.

        Yet the ‘sound’ of Cream and what they offered in live peformance – stretching pop-based music out in length for the first time in Britain, and adding virtuosity (hitherto the preserve of jazz) – was clearly exactly right for the time and place: first Britain and then the USA. We can’t argue with that. No amount of saying, 50 years on, ‘Actually, most of this seems like a lot of dreary, leaden stodge’ can diminish the actual impact they had back in the day.

        Jon Hiseman, though, offered a compelling explanation of Cream’s success – which convinced me – when I interviewed him a few years back. He explained that while Jack and Eric went ‘out’ in their playing onstage – out in length and in musical terms – Ginger kept the beat basic and tribal and gave Joe Public something recogniseable to hold on to. Jon said that if he had been the drummer in Cream he would have gone ‘out there’ with Jack and Eric, and the popular audience would have been baffled. I think he has a point. It still doesn’t want to make me listen to ‘Toad’, though.

        January 11, 2018
      • Dennis Muirhead #

        Thanks Richard. I wanted to know your thoughts on Cream. I don’t disagree about Toad and was quite bored by the reunion concert. Never listen to music in a box at the RAH.
        I like your contribution, Colin. Cream excited me and always will. I heard some jazz in Cream but it wasn’t until I heard Lifetime live that I realized what I wanted Cream to be.

        January 11, 2018
      • Colin Harper #

        The funny thing is, Dennis, I really like lots of the Cream studio recordings – ‘As You Said’, ‘Passing The Time’, ‘Badge’, ‘Wrapping Paper’… To me, that was all much more interesting – the music, the instruments used – than the moronic plod of ‘Politician’, ‘Spoonful’, et al. Only the odd thing like ‘White Room’ seemed to inhabit both the live and studio worlds successfully, in my view.

        January 11, 2018
      • saverio pechini #

        ” Contrary to rumour , Ginger Baker is not the best drummer in the world . Elvin Jones is .( Not to mention Keith Moon . Or Tony Williams . Or whoever’s at the Village Vanguard this week.)” ( Robert Christgau )

        January 11, 2018
      • Mick Steels #

        It was probably wishful thinking on Bruce’s part when he said Cream were an Ornette band with EC not knowing he was Coleman. Having said that listen to Baker play with Haden and Frisell to get an idea of the intuitive and supportive drummer he could be

        January 12, 2018
      • Thanks, Mick. I’ve got a couple of those Frisell-Haden-GB CDs. I’ll get them out and listen, as someone said, without prejudice.

        January 13, 2018
  6. saverio pechini #

    My favourite : the Royal Albert Hall Farewell Concert one . The ” Southern Gentleman” one (replete with moustache) is not bad.As for “elderly rocknroller” I’d add : “in BMW/AUDI ad mode”.
    P.S.:it’s “jeunesse dorée”.

    January 11, 2018
  7. A few months ago I watched a dreadful Hendrix biopic on Netflix. Funnily enough, the only things that impressed me were the hairstyles of the actors playing Clapton and Noel Redding.

    January 11, 2018
  8. Peter F. #

    I found your view of Eric very thought-provoking. I too am fairly unmoved by the ‘rock-blues’ style, but I suppose the icon of EC has just always been such a positive inspiration for players and listeners, as a gateway rather than leader or guru. I feel I shouldn’t miss the film, if only as a cultural document.

    January 11, 2018
    • Peter — I certainly wouldn’t want to put anyone off going to see it.

      January 11, 2018
  9. Phil Shaw #

    I wouldn’t dissent greatly from Richard’s overall view of Clapton and his style or status. But I really don’t get the exemption from criticism of Wonderful Tonight. I just listened again on YouTube and it still set my teeth on edge with its sugariness. Give me Bell Bottom Blues any day.

    January 11, 2018
    • Well, Phil, it’s that little bit of Mills & Boon in the soul that you lack…

      January 11, 2018
      • Phil Shaw #

        Happy to own up to that, Richard.

        January 11, 2018
      • SJC #

        Eric Cartland.

        Now I understand everything. 😉

        January 15, 2018
  10. Paul Crowe #

    Probably the first point on which I have to disagree with you, Richard. I always considered the sickly sentimentality of “Wonderful Tonight” to represent a nadir in Clapton’s career. While never his biggest fan, I enjoyed Cream’s “Wheels of Fire” and the Blind Faith record as a school-going hipster. However let’s not forget the respective contributions of Jack Bruce and Steve Winwood.

    January 11, 2018
    • SJC #

      Agreed! Under any criteria “Wonderful Tonight” is dreadful… maudlin nonsense and patronising. Ugh!

      January 15, 2018
  11. Richard Harris #

    I never got the Clapton worship. I was around at that 60s time, saw him quite a few times and it always seemed like “a blues” with the blood drained. Rhythm & Anaemia. If you listen to the Otis Rush Cobra sides, supposedly an influence, the guitar leads and lines are unfinished, snapped off, but actually felt and” tasted”, they are not preprocessed like Kraft cheese. I am not saying Clapton lacked economy, more that sense of actually & lived space. Again, not to say he’s to blame, but we now have a “white blues” that resembles a black and white minstrel show. Looking back it is just embarrassing.

    As for the racist outburst, and I was surprised reading it again how embracing and fully fledged it was, alcoholic vino verite or not, the guy was just appalling. Other words needed, but this is a family blog.

    January 11, 2018
    • Rick Hanley #

      I strongly agree with Richard Harris about the racist outburst, and urge everyone to read them in full. I can accept that alcohol could have made him sufficiently disinhibited to make those remarks in public. But alcohol could not have given him those appalling views in the first place.

      January 11, 2018
      • It’s a subject that’s been widely discussed over the years. Everybody will have a view, straightforward or otherwise. I’d rather not host a reopening of the debate here. (It’s currently taking place under Peter Bradshaw’s online review of the film on the Guardian website, if anyone wants to join in there.)

        January 11, 2018
  12. David Kelner #

    Dig out Layla and listen to Eric Clapton and Duane Allman going toe to toe on Key To the Highway. Great and expressive guitar playing from both men

    January 11, 2018
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Amen !

      January 11, 2018
  13. GuitarSlinger #

    Richard ; You don’t care for Clapton’s blues based guitar ???? What the ___ ? This coming f from an iconic jazz critic ? Suffice it to say perhaps a reminder in in order that ALL jazz is blues based … along with ALL rock .

    Seriously Richard … not liking Clapton’s music I get … but a comment like that ? Ahhh … no !

    January 11, 2018
    • Dear Gunslinger, At the risk of starting a pedantic argument, 1. Not all jazz is blues based. There is plenty of jazz around today that isn’t and there is actually not that much blues in the Great American songbook from which a lot of jazz takes its cue. 2. Much rock music dispensed with the blues in the 1980s and there is curiously little blues in Indie music which many would class as part of the rock genre. 3. It’s my opinion, and I’m sure I’m not alone, that when it comes to white blues guitarists there were a number who were better than EC, good though he was and is. Give me Jeff Beck or Peter Green any day. And then there’s Derek Trucks. But my preference for blues guitarists is just an opinion, like yours is.

      January 11, 2018
      • Sorry, I meant, of course dear GuitarSlinger.

        January 11, 2018
  14. My late friend Ray Bolden knew both Seamen and Baker. He used to tell me that Baker copied Seamen´s mannerisms rather than his playing.

    January 11, 2018
    • Colin Harper #

      There was something else he copied as well – though he denies Phil was the inspiration.

      January 11, 2018
      • Think I can guess what that might have been!

        January 11, 2018
  15. Stephen Goldsmith #

    Clapton had personal weaknesses and flaws like all of us. I think that any evaluation should concern the music that he created. In retrospect, It will be his recorded musical contributions that will be remembered. That is what defines him.

    I think the most interesting work he did was after Cream. In 1969 -70. He did a lot of session work,with George Harrison, John Lennon and various Apple records artists, Blind Faith, Dr John, Rolling Stones, various singles including Viv Stanshall, King Curtis, Buddy Guy, Delaney and Bonnie, culminating with Derek and the Dominoes.

    From the evidence his playing expanded at this time, and he became more proficient and sensitive player.This is what should be remembered for

    Sadly, his ‘ comeback’ in 1973 and what followed was mostly underwhelming. I would recommend anyone to listen to the work he completed in 1969-70, its a long time ago, but it was when he showed himself to be, at that time, an elegant and inventive player who began to collaborate and then compose some excellent work.

    January 11, 2018
  16. saverio pechini #

    To Colin Harper : you should have listened to the 22 – minutes (I kid you not) solo Hiseman baffled the audience with when I saw Colosseum ( then including , alas , Chris Farlowe). Besides , Hiseman’s playing in trio with Bruce and Surman doesn’t seem to me so ” out there ” as one would have thought possible.

    January 11, 2018
    • Colin Harper #

      I’m only the messenger, Saverio! What we may think of as ‘out there’ now may differ to what was ‘out there’ 50+ years ago, especially in the context of a pop audience. I wasn’t ‘there’ but I’ve spent enough time writing about the past to be always aware of, as far as possible, listening to things and trying to understand things said, written and recorded at particular times and in particular places within the context of that time and place.

      I mentioned that above, about seeing Cream as clearly being the right people at the right time – offering something that a huge amount of people in the popular music audience suddenly found they wanted. As a 21st Century listener I can say that, take away the historical interest of listening to Cream records, I actually enjoy much of the studio stuff but find the live blues jams colossally boring. (And Eric’s position in the pantheon strangely overrated. But it is what it is. Good luck to him.) There was a time when the world was fascinated in large numbers to hear three white people playing endless 12-bar jams, but that time has passed.

      Not enough of that popular audience (outside Germany) wanted Colosseum and almost no one in the popular audience wanted John Surman – but then he was determinedly never offering that market anything! Ginger Baker was actively interested in success. There’s a terrific quote from him in a 1970 (or maybe 69) interview with Valerie Wilmer saying he has no interest doing clever things on drums so that in 50 years someone can say, ‘Christ, that man was a genius!’ – he was 100% interested in being successful. And by golly he found that thumping out African tribal patterns while people played 20 minute versions of Willie Dixon numbers was exactly the way to achieve that! (I have a feeling he might have been thinking of JOhn Stevens when he offered Valerie that observation.)

      January 11, 2018
      • Tim Adkin #

        Nice to see any mention of Colosseum these days although sad to note, all these years on, that the anti Chris Farlowe prejudice persists. For what it’s worth I never felt the band really recovered from the double whammy of losing James Litherland and Tony Reeves much though I admire the work of Dave Clempson.

        As to Clapton – and your comments as ever RW are spot on (“Wonderful Tonight excepted) – I agree it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. There are several guitar players of the post Cream era( who are pretty much forgotten now) who could easily be mentioned in the same breath such as Martin Stone (not bad for a guy who was a foil to Kim Simmonds at one stage), John Moreshead (of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation) and the criminally overlooked Keith(T2) Cross.

        I liked some of Cream’s studio output although there’s an argument to be made that it was as much a project of Bruce and the ill fated Pappalardi than the much vaunted power trio.

        As to Clapton’s output over the last 30 years I’d just put in an honourable mention for his searing contribution to the “Edge Of Darkness” soundtrack.

        Keep up the good work Richard.

        January 19, 2018
  17. Musically, I’m in Stephen Goldsmith’s team – 69-70 – though have good memories of the chilled, in recovery 461 Ocean Blvd period (though not recovery yet from alcohol). The film’s avoidance of the influence of the Band, JJ Cale, and especially Delaney & Bonnie seems utterly bizarre. I’m intrigued by your fondness for ‘Wonderful Tonight’, a good song despite its schmaltz. It was a surprise when released, a mellow storytelling song, likeable despite its sentimentality. It’s an honest expression of where he was at the time: a privileged male fond of the sauce. A woman friend, aged 5 when it came out, has a very entertaining feminist analysis of it, which goes something like, “So, he’s drunk, which enables him to say how beautiful she looks and give advice about the clothes she wears. She’s supposed to like that? And then, he gets even drunker when they’re out, and she is allowed to drive him home. Lucky girl!”

    January 11, 2018
  18. Joachim Kettner #

    Clapton is and was great, I really like his fluency. There were others equally as good as him, makes me think of so many British guitar players like Vic Briggs, Ollie Halsall and the guitarist of the T-Bones (I forget his name). But he could also sing pretty well and that was a big advantage for his career. I still listen to his first solo album.

    January 12, 2018
  19. A couple of years ago, I watched the Last Waltz and Sweet Home Alabama: The Southern Rock Saga on consecutive nights. To my mind, the worst thing on the Last Waltz was Clapton’s blues rock. The best thing on Sweet Home Alabama was Delaney and Bonnie, with Clapton on guitar. I think there’s an argument to be made that as a featured supporting musician, he is marvellous. But when he leads a band, it’s all a bit dreary.

    January 12, 2018
  20. Paul Tickell #

    Thanks, Richard, for articulating why I have always had my doubts about Clapton as a guitar player – and why after 20 minutes I left a Derek and the Dominoes gig in Norwich…

    January 12, 2018
  21. Steve Goldsmith #

    I watched this film on Saturday, and enjoyed it. Although there is a certain amount of musical content, that didn’t seem to be the primary intention of the film.
    It reminded me of an ‘Arena’ programme, such as the James Ellroy film, which revealed the motivations and demons for the dark material in his novels, which are closely tied to the relationship with his mother and father.
    This is similarly echoed in the Clapton film, it produced a credible explanation about his destructive relationships with women, and his self-abuse with alcohol and drugs. The racist outburst was unfortunate, but it wasn’t the only time he drunkenly shouted things from the stage. He appears to have been a very ill man, not a racist, who is lucky to be alive. I think it is unhelpful to continue to pillory a man who has done a lot of charity work over the years. I am pleased with the positive conclusion shown in the film,

    January 14, 2018
  22. SJC #

    It comes as no surprise that the only white boy who ever made B B King sweat was Peter Green.

    January 15, 2018
  23. No mention of JJ Cale? Truly bizarre! But I’d actually like to see the Whitlock segments – he’s the secret weapon on the Derek album, which is the best thing Clapton ever did, in my opinion. P.S. You’re 100% right about Cream.

    January 16, 2018

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