Review: ‘Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars,’ of Triumphs and Tragedies


Eric Clapton, in the documentary “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars.”


The producer and director Lili Fini Zanuck used Eric Clapton’s recording “Tears in Heaven” in a scene of mourning for her 1991 movie “Rush.” The song’s origins are heartbreaking: Mr. Clapton wrote it after his 4-year-old son, Conor, died in a fall from a building in the spring of that year. Now Ms. Zanuck has made, in her second feature film as director, a documentary on Mr. Clapton’s life that takes into consideration the many turning points in the classic rock legend’s career.

As the title, “Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars,” implies, it begins with the blues. In narration, Mr. Clapton talks of being practically mesmerized by music by African-American musicians he heard on the radio as a child. Obsessed, he picked up a guitar and started imitating the players he loved, including B.B. King and Little Walter, whose harmonica sounds he wanted to adapt to guitar. Music helped him cope with, or at least mentally escape, a confusing home life, one in which he initially believed his mother was an older sister.

Ms. Zanuck takes an unusual approach to the music documentary. She has no talking-head interviews; the visual component is entirely composed of archival footage, of either the still or moving-picture variety. Interviewees are tagged with onscreen titles. (Roger Waters is erroneously presented as the guitarist for Pink Floyd; he was its bass player.)