Judge Jeff Robbins's idea of the white man's blues is when he forgets to set his DVR for The Amazing Race.
Clapton was God.
For those able to look past the inevitable failings of an unauthorized rockumentary, Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review presents a surprisingly thorough and enlightening overview of the guitar legend's prolific early years. This is not a production for anyone looking for dirt; rather, Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review impressively—and correctly—keeps its focus on Clapton's music.
Facts of the Case
Before turning the ripe old age of 25 in 1970, Eric Clapton had become one of the rock world's most influential and respected musicians, challenged in the ways of the guitar only by Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review examines Clapton's pre-solo musical output with the bands The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Blind Faith.
I must confess to having fairly low expectations of Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review. Not that I'm not a fan of Clapton's—my CD library includes the box set Crossroads, Cream's Wheels of Fire, and others—but I assumed that, like many unauthorized biographies, Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review would face too many overwhelming production obstacles to be worthwhile.
I was also flummoxed by the disc's basic premise as explained in the brief liner notes and reiterated by the narrator early in the program's introduction. Apparently the producers felt that Clapton's 1960s output needed to be revisited because it has been overshadowed by the guitarist's more recent work. That to me is as crazy as the notation that Voodoo Lounge or Bridges to Babylon have somehow made everyone forget about Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers.
Surprise, surprise. While Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review's production limitations are evident and it lacks the authoritativeness necessary to be a definitive account of Clapton's pre-solo days, the program is—thanks largely to the insightful interviews included—endlessly compelling.
Let's start with the most important aspect of any rockumentary: The music. While I had assumed that copyright issues would prevent the licensing of any of Clapton's music for this production, many of the key tracks are actually here: "I Wish You Would," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "For Your Love," "Ramblin' On My Mind" (the Bluesbreakers track that marked Clapton's first recorded lead vocal), "Wrapping Paper," "I Feel Free," "Sunshine of Your Love," "White Room," "Sleeping in the Ground," and others. And while the tracks are usually played over tedious footage of recording consoles and playback machines, and studio tracks are unfortunately badly dubbed over live footage, the simple fact that the music is here is crucial to its success.
Also crucial to Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review are its interviews, which make up a majority of the program's run time. While at first glance the list of the participants isn't awe-inspiring, the contributors gathered—ranging from Clapton biographers Alan Clayson and Chris Welch to former bandmates Chris Dreja (The Yardbirds) and Tom McGuinness (Clapton's first band, The Roosters), to band leader John Mayall—are thoroughly listenable and impressively knowledgeable about Clapton's 1960s output.
And then there's Top Topham. Every story of an artist's rise to fame seems to include an unfortunate casualty or two (think Pete Best), and here that casualty is Topham, a musician I had frankly never heard of. At just 15 years old, Topham was the original guitarist in The Yardbirds, but was forced to quit by his parents, who preferred that he concentrate on his schoolwork. Since Topham was replaced by Clapton, it certainly makes one wonder what might have been if Topham had remained with The Yardbirds. Surely Topham has wondered that as well, but credit him for not sounding the least bit bitter in his interviews here.
It's important that the interviews are compelling, since the clips tend to be lengthy and presented with absolutely no soundtrack accompaniment. While an authorized documentary would certainly feature Clapton's music under the interviews, here the eerie silence that supplements the clips does take a bit of getting used to.
The modern-day interviews are supplemented by archival interviews with Clapton and Cream band mates Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Their inclusion provides quality insight but their sparseness sadly functions to remind us how even better this would be with more of them.
Speaking of Bruce and Baker, Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review spends more time on the power trio Cream (roughly 45 minutes) than on any of Clapton's other 1960s bands, an understandable choice considering both the superior quality of Cream's output and the comparatively large amount of albums (four) the group issued.
Much of the program's best insight is found in the Cream material: How the leisurely pop of "Wrapping Paper" was a bizarre first single from a band formed by a man who had left The Yardbirds for being too pop-oriented. How Clapton, Baker, and Bruce at once embraced the psychedelic movement (check the covers of Disraeli Gears and Wheels of Fire if you've forgotten) without losing their rock-blues edge. And how, after years of performing mostly blues covers, Clapton and his bandmates were finally forced to come up with a steady stream of originals, many of which are now considered classics.
Unfortunately, it is in the Cream section that the documentary takes its biggest stumble as the producers go off on an unnecessary tangent regarding the possible rivalry between Hendrix and Clapton and the jealousy Clapton felt towards the American who was widely considered a superior player. Though this material is not without merit—most intriguing is the question of whether Hendrix was seen as the more authentic of the two simply because he was black—it disrupts the flow of the narrative and should have been relegated to the disc's bonus features.
It is also frustrating how little time is devoted to Clapton's follow-up to Cream, Blind Faith, or to Clapton's subsequent touring with the rock/soul revue Delaney and Bonnie. One could also make an argument that Derek and the Dominoes (a band formed after Clapton released just one solo album) could have been covered here if the documentary had simply been renamed Eric Clapton: The Band Years.
As is the case for these types of documentaries, the video quality varies wildly from modern-day interviews (good) to archive footage (OK) to stock footage (lousy, but who cares). And while it's wonderful that there is much music included, the recordings sound better on the 20+ year-old Crossroads set than they do in the stereo mix presented here.
There are three interesting bonus featurettes included, all presented in the style of the main feature but wisely extracted for length: "Sonny Boy Williamson and The Yardbirds" (5:48) looks at the 1963 club shows that the Yardbirds played as the bluesman's support band. "Paul Jones on 'Eric Clapton's Powerhouse'" (5:29) features the blues vocalist discussing a short-lived supergroup that was put together to record tracks for a British compilation album. And "Bill Halverson on Cream's 'Badge'" (4:02) has the record engineer relaying a humorous story about George Harrison's visit to the studio to play on one of Cream's best tracks. There are also a dozen "Contributor Biogs," which are simple text screens with biographies of the feature's interviewees—not an insignificant extra given the unfamiliarity of many of the contributors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A rockumentary about a legendary musician that includes exceedingly little footage of said legendary musician actually making or playing music? And interviewee Alan Clayson's interminable pompousness is like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard. Or anything Eric Clapton recorded with Phil Collins.
I often judge the success of rockumentaries by how quickly I turn to the artist's music in my library. After watching Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review, I immediately turned to Crossroads and decided to purchase Cream's box set Those Were The Days. By that measure alone, Eric Clapton: The 1960's Review is a great success.
Not guilty. This verdict is not authorized by Eric Clapton, his record
company, or management.
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