When a documentary begins with its subject using his crutch to deliver a vicious blow to the director’s nose, it’s reasonably safe to expect less-than-smooth sailing ahead. And sure enough, the teasing possibility that other outbursts may disrupt the uneasy alliance between legendary drummer Ginger Baker and filmmaker Jay Bulger provides an underlying tension to the aptly titled “Beware of Mr. Baker.” Winner of the docu jury award at SXSW, this fascinating portrait of the aging rock god as an angry old coot could attract ticketbuyers as well as homevid renters and buyers after fest exposure.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” had its origins in a startlingly candid Rolling Stone interview Baker granted Bulger at the rock legend’s sprawling enclave in South Africa. (The entrance to the spread is marked by a sign bearing the warning that gives the pic its title.)
A physical wreck after decades of substance abuse and debilitating health issues, Baker nonetheless proved to be of sufficiently sound mind to share numerous anecdotes about his fleeting but enduringly memorable glory days with the supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, along with stories of his other colorful personal and professional misadventures throughout the world.
For the production of the docu, Bulger returned to Baker’s retreat, where the rock legend lives with his much younger African wife, her kids and 39 polo ponies. Throughout most of the oncamera interviews, Baker alternates between bemused introspection and acid sarcasm. Told that he is considered the father of punk rock, he snarls, “It should have been aborted.”
Baker is nothing if not forthcoming when discussing the exhilarating highs and dispiriting lows of a life journey that has taken him from scaling international pop charts and jamming with Afrobeat artist Fela Kuti to wallowing in debt, abandoning wives and children, and nearly killing himself with drugs. (At one point, he laughs but does not smile as he recalls hearing a radio news bulletin inaccurately, but plausibly, reporting his death.)
And while he’s willing to take full credit for his wide and lasting influence as a rock drummer — an influence acknowledged during Bulger’s interviews with such notables as Charlie Watts, Stuart Copeland and Johnny Rotten — Baker repeatedly indicates that, all things considered, he might have done better to stick to his first love, jazz.
Pic reveals that it was Bulger’s announced intention to conduct interviews with other folks — including Baker’s former bandmates, ex-wives and oft-estranged children — that triggered Baker’s crutch-wielding attack in the first place. But whatever suffering the filmmaker endured for his art paid off handsomely. The interviews with ex-Cream cohorts Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce are especially revelatory, particularly when Bulger intercuts contradictory accounts by Baker and Bruce of the same events.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” covers the 2005 Cream reunion concert at Royal Albert Hall — which, unsurprisingly, did not lead to Baker’s continued collaborations with Bruce and Clapton — and ends with the guardedly optimistic suggestion that, despite being hobbled by arthritis, Baker can still pound the skins in a manner dazzling enough to impress faithful fans.
On the other hand, Bulger leaves it to the audience to wonder: How much more could Baker have accomplished — how much might he still accomplish — if he weren’t his own worst enemy?
In addition to adroitly employing still photos and archival footage to complete his portrait of Baker, Bulger punctuates several scenes with portentous animated sequences that depict Baker as a drummer who sets the speed for slaves rowing an ancient ship. The symbolism isn’t clear (is Baker ever really in control?), but the imagery is striking.
Other tech values are first-rate, with the sound quality everything a Baker devotee could hope for.