Film Review: Beware of Mr. Baker

The hectic, wild life of the greatest rock ’n’ roll drummer of them all is exposed in this absorbing documentary, which succeeds almost in spite of itself.

As a kid in Hawaii, the group Cream really shaped my musical tastes, making me a particularly sophisticated seventh-grader—or so I thought—when I bought their albums. Now this was exotic and singular to me—the complexity of their hard-driving, irresistible music, their very Britishness, and the way they looked in pictures, especially drummer Ginger Baker, with his strung-out, decadent Jesus mien and odd name.

Baker definitely looked a weirdo, but just how weird he is exceeds all expectations from the evidence given in Jay Bulger‘s documentary Beware of Mr. Baker. Baker is variously described by heavyweights in the music industry like Carlos Santana and fellow percussionists Stewart Copeland (The Police), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) and Neil Peart (Rush) as a force of nature, the greatest drummer ever, and a madman. The film surely proves all these epithets to be true, and it’s a wonder that after the hardest-lived of lives, including bouts of heroin addiction, he is even still standing.

Bulger tracked Baker down at his home in South Africa and encountered one cantankerous old codger, completely unrepentant about his wild-man behavior which cost him a steady commercial career, family relations with his several wives and estranged children and, eventually, even the home in which he is interviewed. The doc starts with Baker actually physically attacking Bulger, bloodying his face. This is followed by moments of auteurial excess in which Baker’s career is skimmed over in terms both hagiographic and horrified, through hokey animation and flash editing. One fears the worst, and almost doesn’t blame Baker for his violence, especially when Bulger throws questions at him about being a “tragic hero.”

Thankfully, it all settles down to the myriad interviews the director scored from Baker intimates, both professional and personal, and their words paint a vividly full picture of the man, whose peripatetic, financially hard-pressed nature took him to Los Angeles for a brief, ridiculous movie career and, eventually, Africa, where he took up polo and became seriously involved with the legendary, radically political musician Fela. Baker’s son Kofi is especially revealing about what it was like to have such a domineering yet rarely present dad. Talent runs deep, and Kofi has inherited a drumming talent which is thrillingly on display during a percussion duet with his father that was possibly their rare, happiest moment together. This moment is all the more touching when you later hear about Ginger’s blisteringly mean, hysterical excoriation of his son, the words of which effectively ended their relationship.

From Bulger’s findings, the “Rosebud” key to Baker’s complexity would seem to be the early loss of his own father to World War II. Ex-Cream band-mates Jack Bruce (whom Baker doesn’t like) and Eric Clapton (whom Baker does like) naturally weigh in—not as much as one would hope—with their thoughts on his difficult nature and talent. The latter is simply undeniable from the many performance clips included, which illustrate the pounding, elemental, uncannily rhythmic talent—born of Baker’s love of jazz drumming—which set him head and shoulders above the likes of The Who’s Keith Moon or Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, both of whom are denigrated here. It’s enough to make you almost believe Johnny Rotten’s unequivocal summation, “Whatever his social difficulties, you cannot question anyone with the end result of his performances.”