Beware of Mr. Baker

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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