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.)
The first half of the movie is largely a 1960s “and then I wrote/played” story that is more interested in Mr. Clapton’s romantic obsession with Pattie Boyd, the then-wife of his then-best-friend George Harrison, than with Mr. Clapton’s seemingly constitutional inability to stick with one band for any length of time — although the two things may not be entirely unrelated, in terms of temperament at least. The pursuit of Ms. Boyd did yield one of the most notable classic rock albums ever, “Layla,” and its making is given a considered treatment here. But Mr. Clapton’s work with the American roots rockers Delaney & Bonnie, and his first solo album, both stage-setters for “Layla,” are completely ignored.
The second half of the film, though, shows exemplary frankness in revealing how drugs and alcohol brought out the very worst in Mr. Clapton in the 1970s. His reprehensible racist remarks, his abuse of friends and band mates, and more, is laid out in practically unsparing detail.
“I was becoming chauvinistic and fascist, too,” he admits of his behavior. At the end of that tunnel was a sobriety that was, some might say, cruelly tested by the death of Conor. As a musical biography, this comes up short; it plays substantially better as a story of recovery and recovered integrity.
An earlier version of this review misspelled the given name of Eric Clapton’s first wife. She is Pattie Boyd, not Patti.
An earlier version of this review misidentified one of the musicians who inspired Eric Clapton. It was Little Walter, not Little Milton.