No rating, 89 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
It was never meant to be the way it turned out. Eric Clapton and a combo of some of his closest musical collaborators were due to perform live at the Royal Albert Hall in front of thousands of fans earlier this year, but the pandemic stepped in again and that was the end of it.
A blockbuster event for a live audience became instead an intimate experience, a showcase for superb musicianship that was recorded for this concert film and accompanying new album, Eric Clapton: The Lady in the Balcony Lockdown Sessions. The album comprises 17 tracks of old favourites written by Clapton and other famous rock and bluesmen. Layla is in there, of course, too.
The concert, if that’s the right word for these informal sessions by Clapton and his combo of retirement-age musos, took place at Cowdray House, an imposing manorial pile in the West Sussex countryside. During the shoot, the seasons were turning from late winter to early spring. On occasion, the camera spotted Clapton or members of his band out exercising in the expansive grounds.
There’s an audience of one. Clapton’s wife, Melia, ‘the lady in the balcony’ who makes a cameo appearance from said balcony above the manorial hall. Before that happens, a quirky group of cardboard cutouts, including likenesses of famous politicians, are seen on the balcony in a cutaway.
In the absence of a live audience, the film’s director, Russ Titelman, has made a sense of place important, with a panning, tilting and probing camera scanning the mansion from above and below, and drone shots of its amazing grounds. Granted, it’s good to break away occasionally from the spot where music is being made.
Cowdray House is a grand old rural pile that has seen many iterations since it was first built around nine hundred years ago. It seems to have gone through many changes over the centuries so that it is now something of an architectural curio, so why not now backdrop to a concert by one of pop music’s greatest guitarists, comfortable in denim shirt and moccasins?
It is a special pleasure watching all the musicians at work. With the benefit of medium shot and close up, the communication between a tight combo that has worked together over decades is there for all to see. Bass player and back-up vocalist Nathan East, drummer Steve Gadd and Clapton all observing each other as they go, though Clapton’s ‘anchoring’ keyboardist, Chris Stainton, seems to intuit what he needs to do next without ever peering round his curtain of long hair. If it’s true that few rock n’ roll musos can read music, what does this combined effortlessness say to the rest of us?
a doco about a rare talent, and tribute to a lifetime’s work
In 2017, the Lily Zanuck documentary, Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars, put much of the musician’s life out there in its difficult, painful detail. Clapton’s life story has certainly seen some great sorrow, the kind that Tears in Heaven brings to mind.
Besides a few snatches of voiceover and a bit of banter, there is little meaningful verbalising apart from a little commentary by the ‘guitar tech’, and by director Titelman, also Clapton’s music producer.
During the ongoing pandemic it has been a time to keep the candle burning, Clapton observes, though apparently not a time to venture much that’s new.
His first piece, a solo rendition of the very familiar ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’, established with a cut as though he’s playing while waiting for the roadies to set up, is delivered on his new 12-string acoustic. However, this track and all the tracks that follow, like Black Magic Woman, After Midnight, Goin’ Down Slow and Got My Mojo Working, are established favourites. We know everything by heart.
Like Nick Cave, who went ahead and performed solo in front of cameras at Alexandra Palace after his concert was canned, Clapton seems to have seized the moment, but the tracks are among the canon. Is there nothing new to say? Hardcore music fans will be the best judge.
If it seems like pointing the cameras and getting the band to play was all there was to it, then the ease of delivery has been deceptive. Eric Clapton – Lockdown Sessions is about a rare talent, enhanced by a lifetime’s work.
First published in the Canberra Times on 5 December 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes