Toronto 2017: Clapton, Gaga Music Docs Have Strong Premieres at Fest

'A Life in 12 Bars' closes the book on Slowhand's career, while 'Gaga: Five Feet Two' documents the singer catching a second wind

Music docs 'Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars' and 'Gaga: Five Feet Two' get snazzy premieres at Toronto Film Festivals – our TIFF 2017 reviews.

It's a sort of lopsided smile, almost like a child's-drawing version of what a grin is supposed to look like. Even more than the eyes and the jawline and that chin, which would later by framed by long Swingin' Sixties sideburns and covered by a ragged Seventies beard, it's the mouth of the kid in those early, black and white pictures that draws recognition. That's Eric Clapton's smile that the lad in the woolly jumper is sporting. And as he got older, even after he became famous and fans thought his playing was divine and he had permanently changed rock and roll, those happy expressions would be harder and harder to come by.

That, in essence, is the message of Eric Clapton: A Life in 12 Bars, Lili Fini Zanuck's surprisingly satisfying sprint through the guitarist's life that constantly reminds you of the old chestnut about needing to have the blues in order to play the blues. And as everyone from jilted exes to Jimi Hendrix will tell you here, the man had enough bona fides in that department to be one of the best blues guitarists (Tall Pale Englishman Division) ever to grace a stage. Starting from those old snapshots of Li'l Eric, we gradually watch as that youngster from the snapshots grows into a sullen young man who, thanks to a British radio personality named Uncle Mac, discovers Muddy Waters and the romantic notion of "one man with a guitar, against the world." 

Even if you know where things are headed – bonding with fellow postwar blues aficionados, tenures in small bands like the Roosters and big ones like the Yardbirds, John Mayall, "Clapton Is God," yadda yadda yadda – the doc unearths some wonderful tidbits to make its case and enshrine its subject. Having played with the Beatles during their 1964 Christmas show, he refers to the Fab Four as "a bunch of wankers" ... though he liked George Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass gentleman-druid phase would play a big part in Clapton's middle act. Audio of Hendrix and Clapton hanging out in British clubs features Jimi bragging that he "just kissed the fairest soul brother in England." You see photos of the Cream guitarist, deep into his psychedelic fop look, impressing the veteran musicans on an Aretha Franklin session at Atlantic and hear unearthed testimony from Duane Allman that he and Clapton had started jamming around "on a thing" – cue the legendary Derek and the Dominoes sessions. And we get a glimpse of the letter that a lovestruck Clapton wrote Patti Boyd, asking her to leave her husband and go away with him.

"It didn't work. It was all for nothing." That's the man himself on Layla, the double-album plea to the object of his obsession; she loved the songs but loved her spouse even more. Zanuck connects that rejection to the guitarist's earlier dismissal from his long-absent mother during a visit with a new son in tow. The heartbreak also lays the groundwork for a lost decade of junkie reclusiveness and extraordinary public inebriation, which the movie treats in the same way that Clapton says he remembers it, i.e. a series of fragments and embarrassments. His heroin years are depicted via a series of stills with dates – Feb '71, Sep. '72, Jun. '73 – that suggests the slipped grasp of junkie time. His Eric the Courvoisier Drunk years are telegraphed via a montage of mortifying live footage, crowd taunting, racial epithet-spewing and MOR album covers. Slowhand gets sloppy. Sobriety happens. So does tragedy, and eventually a late-act stab at elder statesmanship and [gasp] happiness.

If the last 15 minutes or so seem like a slightly tepid victory lap, with tales of great Antigua rehab centers and B.B. King praising Clapton at length onstage, it's only because A Life in 12 Bars has spent most of the previous two hours presenting the tragedies and setbacks in such a compelling, chronologically skewed order. As much a celebration of a great artist's life, it also feels like a turning of a page and then a firm closing of the book: Asked at the press conference whether his recent runs at Madison Square Garden and L.A.'s Forum were his last shows ever or if he'd just keep slogging it out, old-bluesman style, he answered, "Both. Yeah, I'm quitting. I've got four more shows and then it's over ... and I've been saying that since I was 17. I love playing music, it's just a question of, 'Where's the venue?'" He said he liked the last part of the movie the best, because it featured him smiling the most. Then Clapton grinned. He looked a lot like that innocent kid again.

You get some happy faces in Gaga: Five Foot Two, a portrait of Lady Gaga and the fest's other hot-ticket music doc premiere; its default emotional display, however, is crying, and lots of it. There are more waterworks per capita in this look at Gaga's transition from Artpop star to the Artist Who Made Joanne than possibly any other music documentary ever, and to see both the Clapton movie and this film in one day was to take a nosebleed-inducing Mars-to-Venus trip. When times got tough for the English gent, he retreated into drugs and an almost cartoonishly masculine stoicness. Gaga's movie is as much about her emotionally processing as it is the process of her making an emotional album.

First, however, Her Gaganess had a treat in store for the premiere's audience. After being introduced by the festival's Artistic Director Cameron Bailey, Ms. Stefanie Germanotta walked onstage in a fuzzy pink coat and vinyl black bellbottoms, sat down at a piano and pounded out a three-alarm torch song version of "Bad Romance," all Edith Piaf on PCP. It was raw and gorgeous. After that, a peek behind the curtain seemed almost superfluous, especially when it starts out with a shot of Gaga's boots in mid-air, suspended between two places before a harness pulls her upward. (Metaphor alert!) 

What follows is an interesting mixture of making-of album tidbits, tears, massage-table confessionals, a little bit of kvetching over Madonna's shit-talking, lots of on-brand messaging, pre-Super Bowl performance powwows, panic attacks, more tears and the sense that you're watching a provocateur try to shock folks by not hiding behind a mask or meat dress. Producer Mark Ronson and Gaga's manager Bobby Campbell double as sounding boards and sidekicks, especially during some tough recording sessions. Director Chris Moukarbel knows when to drop some technique to make a point – see his montage of scenes in which Gaga turns a post-fame gauntlet walk to her car into a continuous fashion runway. It's a great example of the singer's extraordinary powers of reclamation, as is the moment when Gaga details how she'd purposefully add dollops of the absurd to her pop bombshell image. That, she says, was how she maintained control in an industry that runs on Svengalis and sexualizing women. The statement is insightful. Naturally, she follows it up by joking that the filmmaker can't use any of that footage in the movie.

For every scene like that one, however, there's something like the visit to her grandma's house. The backstory: Joanne is dedicated to her aunt, an artistic young woman who passed away at a young age. The title track is a tribute. Gaga really wants her nana to hear this song – you'd almost think it was made with an audience of one in mind. So she plays the song for her. You can feel its creator desperately wanting to get an emotional reaction out of the older woman, hovering over her and watching her like a hawk. And at the end of it, you're unable to shake the sense, while the sentiment is 100-percent real, the sequence has been partially constructed for the cameras, almost like a photo opp or a later sequence in which she surprises a superfan. At which point you start to question how much of the intimacy on display has a tinge of the manufactured of it, how much of this is all just fodder for another project-in-progress.

 Which doesn't take away from Five Foot Two's peeks behind the curtain overall, it just makes you think a lot of its "realness" should be put in quotes. It ends at the 2017 Super Bowl, the only event that can get Barbara Bush and Donatella Versace under the same roof, and Gaga's spectacular halftime performance, doubling as a personal triumph/phoenix-rise against heartbreak and hater chatter. After the credits rolled and the Little Monsters screamed, you wished she'd ixnayed the postscreening Q&A and did that stripped-down "Bad Romance" again. That felt real. She'd mentioned earlier in a press conference that she was taking an extended break from music. The chances of her walking away altogether is about as likely as Clapton doing it, however. They both need the stage too much.