Eric Clapton’s Blues: New Showtime Doc Peels Back a Little of the Curtain and the Picture is Sobering

Considering that he’s widely revered as one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll guitarists ever, Eric Clapton has maintained a remarkably low celebrity profile over the last half century.

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Eric Clapton in a Guitar God moment. Rock fans everywhere genuflect.

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars, a two-hour-plus documentary that premieres at 9 p.m. ET Saturday on Showtime, draws back, well, part of the curtain.

Director Lili Fini Zanuck, whose previous film work includes Driving Miss Daisy, draws on interviews, vintage clips, Clapton’s home movie archive and his own commentary to flesh out the picture.

She doesn’t touch up what she finds. Where the story gets ugly, as it does on more than one occasion, or wistful and sad, as it does on multiple occasions, she lets it stand.

Those who only know Clapton as a guitar magician will learn he sees his life rather differently: as a long struggle against much of the world and his own self.

By the two-hour mark, before a brief finale that has a strikingly different tone, viewers could easily be thinking there’s a reason Clapton plays the blues.

They could also be thinking this: even after two hours, he’s still a bit of a shadow.

From his earliest work with the Yardbirds through his Guitar God phase with Cream and “Layla” to his quieter blues work, with stops along the way for classic rock standards like “Wonderful Tonight,” Clapton at his best became a standard against which thousands of other rock guitarists have been measured.

Even when he sang something as sentimental as “Tears in Heaven,” inspired by the tragic death of his 5-year-old son Conor, his fans will tell you he’s still Clapton.

With that in mind, spending more time on his guitar work might have helped 12 Bars further explain the man behind it.

Early in the film we see a brief interview with a young Clapton in which he demonstrates how he uses traditional blues riffs to seed his own creations. At the end he adds that he’s not as aggressive as Pete Townshend of The Who. It’s a fascinating and instructive moment.

Truth is, rock ’n’ roll fans could watch the whole show just to see Clapton, Chuck Berry and Keith Richards in a minute-long clip from the rehearsal for the film Hail Hail Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Clapton’s retro-commentary on his off-stage life, like the commentary of more than a dozen others, uses almost no talking-head shots, only audio.

This is a good idea, and in Clapton’s case, it makes his blunt comments blunter. He recalls his time in Cream, with squabbling cohorts Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, as “awful.” He admits he couldn’t wait to get out of the Yardbirds when it seemed like they wanted to chase the Beatles.

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While he describes his childhood as materially comfortably, he recalls a feeling of isolation. He was the weird kid at school, and treated accordingly by other kids, but what really kicked him in the head was discovering at 9 that the far-away relative he always knew as his sister was really his mother.

When he met her, she said she preferred to leave him out of her life. “It was rejection,” he says, and it triggered a lifelong fear of further rejection that for decades sabotaged his attempts at close relationships.

The most public of those failures was his well-chronicled infatuation with Pattie Boyd, the wife of his best friend George Harrison.

Thinking himself hopelessly in love with her despite the awkwardness of the situation, he asked her to run away with him. He wrote songs for her, notably “Layla.”

Boyd and Clapton both recall that drama at some length here, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Boyd stayed with Harrison, then split from him several years later and gave it a go with Clapton. Trouble was, he now admits, he coveted her more as the unattainable ideal than an actual partner.

Their inevitable split was accelerated, Boyd says, by the fact Clapton was in the middle of a years-long addiction to first heroin, then alcohol.

12 Bars dwells at length on that addiction, yet gives notably little information on how he overcame it or how he functioned in its grasp.

We get a few ugly snapshots, like drunken racial slurs on stage and nightmarish memories from bandmates. But in the same years Clapton also was recording “Wonderful Tonight” and “I Shot the Sheriff,” suggesting that his music, at the very least, helped.

12 Bars, with the apparent full consent of its subject, gives us a man with feet of clay.

And, on many a good night, fingers of gold.

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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