Beware of Mr. Baker

by Drew Kerr on May 3, 2012

in Documentaries,Film Festivals,Hot Docs

Beware of Mr. Baker

Beware of Mr. Baker (Director: Jay Bulger): The film opens with the unlikely scen­ario of its sub­ject, drummer Ginger Baker, breaking the nose of the film’s dir­ector with a well-placed shot from his walking cane. Beware of Mr. Baker indeed. It’s a per­fect table-setter for first-time dir­ector Jay Bulger’s bio­graph­ical film on the crusty, unpre­dict­able musi­cian, con­sidered by many to be the ori­gin­ator of modern rock and roll drum­ming. His reclusive tend­en­cies and fairly obscure musical output over the past three dec­ades (save for a high pro­file live reunion in 2005 with Cream, the band with which he’s most asso­ci­ated) have only increased the sense of mys­tery and legend sur­rounding the notorious wild man.

Bulger first brought the updated Baker story to the public in “The Devil and Ginger Baker”, his revealing 2009 written piece (PDF down­load), which Rolling Stone magazine printed des­pite the fact that Bulger had mis­rep­res­ented him­self as a writer for the pub­lic­a­tion in order to gain access to the musi­cian. I vividly remember reading that story and thinking what a great doc sub­ject Baker would make, but figured that would never happen due to his mer­curial tem­pera­ment. Bulger somehow ingra­ti­ated him­self enough to Baker to end up staying for three months at the drummer’s for­ti­fied South African com­pound while working on the Rolling Stone piece, with the hours of filmed inter­views from that exper­i­ence laying the found­a­tion for the doc­u­mentary. As excel­lent as “The Devil and Ginger Baker” was, Beware of Mr. Baker does it one better — his tumul­tuous life story is so intriguing that it vir­tu­ally demands the full-length doc treatment.

Bulger assembles a Who’s Who of rock drum­mers singing Baker’s praises, including Stewart Copeland, Lars Ulrich, Neil Peart, Chad Smith, Charlie Watts, Nick Mason, and Bill Ward. Also weighing in is Johnny Rotten in a couple of amusing scenes that bookend the film. It’s worth noting that Baker des­pised much of the music that Cream influ­enced — he says punk “should have been aborted,” cringes upon hearing he had an influ­ence on heavy metal, and mocks the tal­ents of John Bonham and Keith Moon. Cream band­mates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce provide some fas­cin­ating insight into the dif­fi­culties of working with a loose cannon drummer who was well into the throes of heroin addic­tion during the supergroup’s short two year lifespan. Clapton’s con­ver­sa­tions reveal a love/hate rela­tion­ship with the drummer and he makes the inter­esting obser­va­tion that although he’s known him much longer, per­haps Bulger knows the enig­matic Baker better than he does due to the fact that unlike him­self, the dir­ector has now spent so much time in close prox­imity with Baker.

The “career ret­ro­spective” por­tion of the film demon­strates Baker’s propensity for short-lived group stints and burned bridges, res­ulting in an increas­ingly shrinking pool of musi­cians willing to work with him and fuel­ling the drummer’s feel­ings of ali­en­a­tion. Baker’s love of jazz is a key focal point of the doc­u­mentary — he began as a jazz drummer and wor­shipped the genre’s biggest per­cus­sion­ists, even boldly organ­izing a tele­vised drum-off with some of them as an excuse to both play with the jazz drum­ming elite and to earn their respect. Another focal point is Baker’s time spent in Africa in the 70s, where he explored his pas­sion for the continent’s music and worked with Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti, before even­tu­ally being forced out of Nigeria due to polit­ical unrest.

Nearly all of Bulger’s fiery inter­views with Baker fea­ture the drummer chain smoking while propped in a recliner; at one point, Bulger asks his sub­ject to remove his ever-present sunglasses and, after some reluct­ance, Baker agrees. His eyes appear sad and rather dead-looking, showing the effects of seven dec­ades of self-destructive beha­viour and the steady helping of morphine being used to help ease his various health ail­ments (“God is pun­ishing me for my past wicked­ness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can. I wasn’t plan­ning on living this long”, he says). Some of the other fal­lout from his life­time of selfish and reck­less beha­viour: four mar­riages (he’s cur­rently mar­ried to a 29-year-old Zimbabwean woman whom he met on the Internet), estranged rela­tion­ships with his kids (he once intro­duced his 15-year-old son to cocaine), and per­sistent money issues (he blew through an estim­ated $5 mil­lion earned from the Cream reunion and spent it on dona­tions to animal causes and his hobby of col­lecting polo ponies).

Bulger applies the styl­istic flourish of anim­ated art­work to subtly advance and sup­ple­ment the film’s nar­rative, as well as add a comedic touch in places. The German Expressionist-style art is dazzling, but the dir­ector tends to overuse the device; not to men­tion that the same tech­nique using the same art style was seen last year in the U2 doc­u­mentary From The Sky Down (to be fair, Bulger’s film was likely fin­ished by the time the U2 doc came out). Aside from that, my only quibble with Beware of Mr. Baker is that it feels some­what incom­plete at 92 minutes. That’s actu­ally a test­a­ment to how engrossing Bulger’s por­trait of the iras­cible and uncom­prom­ising Baker is, but slightly more con­tent would have been wel­come from a doc­u­mentary offering such rare access to one of rock history’s most col­ourful characters.

Official site of the film

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