‘Beware Of Mr. Baker’ Documentary
An innate sense of timing, along with the ability to operate each of his four limbs independently, beating out intricate, frenzied polyrhythms, turned legendary drummer Ginger Baker into one of the seminal percussionists of 20th-century popular music.
But the scarlet-maned jazzman has never been, to understate the matter, an easy person to get along with, a point that writer/director Jay Bulger’s wildly entertaining “Beware of Mr. Baker” returns to again and again, as the film follows him through four marriages, at least a half-dozen bands, roughly one million cigarettes and countless burned bridges.
And if leaving a trail of smoldering wreckage in his wake doesn’t have you wondering why anyone would continue to stick around for more of his antics, Baker’s slamming of the abilities of Led Zeppelin’s Jon Bonham and The Who’s Keith Moon behind the kit just might be what sends you over the edge.
Nevertheless, it’s kind of a shame I’m just now discovering this portrait of a revered yet self-destructive artist, whose less-than-admirable personality still wasn’t enough to deter voters from awarding the film the grand jury prize for a documentary at last year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin.
The opening scene pretty much sets the tone, which shows Bulger getting smashed in the face by his cantankerous subject, who becomes enraged after learning his contemporaries will have the opportunity to comment about him on camera.
Fortunately, Baker can, at times, be civil.
In addition to hearing from his former Cream bandmates, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, a notable squad of veterans — from the Stones’ Charlie Watts and the Police’s Stewart Copeland to Rush’s Neil Peart and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart — speak to Baker’s genius and provide insight into his impact on the drumming world.
The facts of his life describe a familiar tale of modest beginnings, early triumph, extreme excess and at least partial recovery.
After a wartime childhood in Britain during which his father was killed in action, Baker survived a rebellious adolescence, nearly two decades of heroin addiction and the standard diet of touring, feuding and sexual abandon that used to be synonymous with rock ’n’ roll.
Now in his 70s, he has aged but not necessarily mellowed, living in pastoral semi-seclusion in South Africa with his family, dozens of dogs and an outrageously expensive brood of polo ponies.
He plays the drums less regularly these days, due to degenerative arthritis. But over a long career, Baker has earned a place in rock’s pantheon, although he is rightfully celebrated for his work in jazz and world music as well.
Having previously written an exhaustive profile on Baker for Rolling Stone magazine in 2009, Bulger takes advantage of the cinematic medium to give us an honest look at the man behind the rhythmic virtuosity.
“You can’t put music in boxes,” Baker says, “especially my music.”
To his credit, Bulger doesn’t try. Nor does he try to put Baker himself in a box, allowing the beleaguered drummer to reminisce and grouse freely.
Plenty of musical sound bites are intercut with Baker’s musings as well as an artsy display of animated sequences, while a trove of archival footage is enough to convince most viewers that he deserves his accolades.