Beware Of Mr Baker

Beware Of Mr Baker


Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

The first time we see Ginger Baker on screen in Jay Bulger's short but colourful music documentary, he is bashing Bulger in the face with his walking cane, croaking expletives like bullets. By the time audiences get to the end of the film, they will probably come to the conclusion that the filmmaker got off lightly. Ginger Baker achieved amazing things in his life and career as a jazz drummer who played with some of the most influential bands of the past 60 years, but the physical and emotional cost was high, as it always seems to be with those who earn the label “genius” from their peers and contemporaries.

Bulger's documentary has it roots in the time he spent several years ago living out in South Africa on the 70-year-old Bakers estate, interviewing him for a Rolling Stone article. Returning more recently with a camera crew, Bulger set up shop in Baker's house once more and teased (dragged would be a more appropriate word) out Baker's life story as the drummer sat, whisky and cigarette locked into his arthritic fingers. What comes out in the film seems like the very essence of a rock life, though Baker demands to be called a jazz, as opposed to a rock, musician. It is a life, in its intensity of talent, hedonism abuse, achievement, and absurdity, that makes the Rolling Stones look like amateurs.

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A tough south London kid who became almost accidentally fascinated with jazz drumming, Baker gained fame as a member of the Graham Bond Organisation and then as a member of the hugely influential but very short lived (this would become a regularly feature of Baker's life, none of his projects ever seemed to last) rock band Cream, from 1966 until they disbanded in 1968. He later joined the group Blind Faith. Other projects included the fusion rock group Ginger Baker's Air Force, Ginger Baker's Energy and collaborations with a host of major musicians including the pioneering afro beat musician Fela Kuti. Baker also found time to get involved with Hawkwind, Atomic Rooster and Public Image Ltd, the Baker Gurvitz Army and the hard-rock group Masters of Reality. He zipped across a baffling number of continents in his time, at one point disappearing off to Lagos in Nigeria for years, where he fell deeply into African drum rhythmns, and bizarrely, horse polo. Never seeming to settle in either a project or a country, Baker was as restless as his drumsticks, hopeless with money or planning.

Baker's own gruff testimony is at the core of the film. He has an acid tongue, but is also remarkably candid about his personal life and successes/failings and isn't afraid to cut other musicians and rivals off at the knees. He is also very, very funny. Through him, we get a taste of the blues clubs of mid-60s London, the explosion and sudden rise to fame that was Cream, and his unconventional paths. Had Bulger simply left the camera running with Baker puffing away, this documentary would have been entertaining enough, but he wisely mixes it up with some superb archive footage from Baker's past, including some absolutely fascinating footage of his time in Lagos with Kuti. If you want clips of Baker drunk or off his face on some ludicrous cocktail of drugs (he admits to at one point mixing up heroin and coke with lysurgic acid or some such insane chemical compound) then there is plenty of that, but to see Baker out in Lagos, his face a mask of rapture, as he listens to an African drum beat performance, is to see a more intellectual and inquisitive side of him easily forgotten amid the hedonism and male rage. The Cream footage is also a joy to watch, a reminder of how significant the band were in the field of progressive, blues and psychedelic rock supergroups (something this too-young reviewer discovered for the first time).

Bulger also has done his homework when it comes to gathering up plenty of talking heads from Baker's past, with all the eras covered by an impressive roster of big and small names, including Johnny Rotten, Charlie Watts, and Lars Ulrich. Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce from Cream offer perhaps the most incisive and nuanced analysis of their combustible bandmate. Bruce, in particular, had a such a stormy relationship with Baker - involving punch ups and knives - that you wonder how Cream even lasted two hours let alone years. Baker's various family members are not afraid to share some dark stories from the past either, Baker was neither an easy husband or father to live with, and the trail of tears and hurt behind him is a long one. This provides an important balance to the well-deserved accolades Baker gets from many of the interviewees who either worked with him or simply watched, amazed, as he played. Baker comes across as a restless, impossible, arrogant, savage figure, yet also an incredibly naturally talented man who, like a missile, can be either right on target but can also be just as likely to miss and blow up everything else around him.

Recent and highly praised rock documentary Searching For Sugar Man found an audience keen to hear stories of old music veterans finally being unearthed and given their due. Bulger's Beware Of Mr Baker might just do the same.

Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2012
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Documentary about the flamboyant drummer.
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Director: Jay Bulger

Writer: Jay Bulger

Year: 2012

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US, South Africa

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