Director: Jay Bulger
Runtime: 100 minutes
My first thought when researching the documentary Beware of Mr. Baker was acknowledging I really don’t know anything about music. Facts about this legendary, unpredictable, and difficult drummer—Ginger Baker—being in Cream surprised me since I always associated the band with Eric Clapton. Not only was the group’s guitar virtuoso not the main singer, though, he wasn’t even a credited songwriter as bassist Jack Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown held the honor. Even more, it was actually Baker who started the influential band in the first place despite ending up with the lowest financial compensation. And while it was the volatile musician’s most successful two years, his full story spans many more short-lived bands, four wives, three continents, and a whole lot of bile-filled genius.
Director Jay Bulger wastes no time showing his uncensored subject’s issues via a shouting match that culminates in the drummer smashing the filmmaker’s nose with his cane. Blood drips from Bulger’s face and no sign of remorse is given from his assailant. Ginger Baker continues being a man who stands his ground and uses his fists ever since being told to do so at fourteen in a letter from his father a decade after losing his life in World War II. This tempestuous anger severed ties with friends, colleagues, loves, and countries but like he told his first wife before they were married, “If you ever make me choose between drums and family, I’ll pick drums”. After Phil Seaman played him a record of African beats, percussion’s spell took Baker and never gave him back.
The reason Bulger received unfettered access on Baker’s farm in South Africa is it’s own bit of rock and roll. Lying to the icon about being a writer for Rolling Stone, the would-be journalist was begrudgingly welcomed. Eventually getting the finished piece published in the magazine anyway, it started his career and he wanted to return the favor by telling the full story through film two years later. Watching their dynamic often makes you wonder why Baker agreed to this endeavor in the first place as he refuses to answer questions he’s already answered off camera as well as elaborate on facts that should be intrinsically understood. Somehow Bulger does pull anecdotes, insight, and emotion from the rather formidable creature in sunglasses anyway; they just come at their own pace.
Spanning his time in Alexis Korner‘s Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization to high-profiled acts Cream and Blind Faith to his more personal, jazz-infused stylings with Airforce and DJQ20, Beware of Mr. Baker shows the many highs and lows in the artist’s own reminiscing words, archived footage, and grungy animated interludes. Baker candidly speaks about his drug use, (“smack makes you fearless”), attempts at sobering up, (“Hawaii ended up having more than LA, so it wasn’t the best place to go”), and unparalleled genius (John Bonham and Keith Moon were technically sound but couldn’t hold a candle to what he was doing). And it’s all corroborated by an impressive line-up of interviewees including the trio of Stewart Copeland (The Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), and Neil Peart (Rush) all saying Ginger was their inspiration.
His fast-paced lifestyle should have burned every bridge he had, but to hear Jack Bruce say he still loves Baker after watching two bands dissolve courtesy of their explosive relationship shows the level of respect the industry holds. He isn’t the ideal role model as far as the male gender’s capacity for decency goes, but he is a master of his craft—this is indisputable. Don’t call him a rock drummer, though, because the label won’t do his skill justice. The Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ Chad Smith educates us on the truth of Baker actually being a jazz musician and Clapton agrees by explaining how he was in a league of his own. It’s no surprise that Ginger staged a series of drum battles with his jazz idols to prove it; only that he shows true humility in calling them his friends.
Names like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, and Art Blakey are bandied around; Fela Kuti is shown to be his contemporary and collaborator in Lagos, Africa; and Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, Steve Winwood, and Charlie Watts amongst others weigh in about their experiences with the legend. Stories about him falsely being declared dead on the radio, his eccentric affinity for polo, and the surprisingly enjoyable Cream reunion in 2005 at Royal Albert Hall are all included as Baker grins slyly at the craziness, scowls at the frustrations, and at times even genuinely shows pain. Considering he told off his son Kofi when threatened with deportation because goodbyes were never his strong suit and sarcastically feigns tears when asked by Bulger to cry on cue, any tinge of emotion must be real because his aged walls of aggression stamp out the rest.
The film isn’t for everyone with subject matter skewing close to an industry that may bore those who could care less about classic rock, but it similarly works like another documentary from this year called Far Our Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story. Baker’s life is much deeper and diverse than surfaces reveal and his battle for genius at the detriment of humanity is heavy on the drama. America loves its tales of impossible egos and hubristic descents from immense highs, so there is larger appeal than the music in that respect. Ginger Baker may not be a name fans like me who adore the era’s songs yet only know five drummers’ names will know, so Jay Bulger’s true success lies in my now knowing six. Baker is definitely not a man you’ll easily forget.
Beware of Mr. Baker opens in limited release on Wednesday, November 28th.
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