A combination of rock legend, different drummer, musical traveler and irascible mess, Ginger Baker makes for a compelling, sad and darkly entertaining subject in “Beware of Mr. Baker,” writer-director Jay Bulger’s documentary about the Cream and Blind Faith percussion force.
Via old footage, relatively recent interviews and animation, the film serves as a colorful chronicle of Baker’s lifelong wild ride and a multishaded portrait of a famously talented but infinitely difficult artist.
Baker grew up during World War II. “I still love explosions,” he says, recalling the London Blitz. His musical roots are in jazz.
The glory years include Baker’s membership in the 1960s supergroup Cream, followed by stints in other bands. Devotion to the drum took Baker to Africa, where he appeared with Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. In South Africa, we meet Baker at the home he shares with a young wife and 39 polo horses.
Interviewees include musicians Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood and Neil Peart, among others, plus several of Baker’s ex-wives and children.
The centerpiece figure is the ailing, but still formidable, 73-year-old Baker himself. He smokes, curses and, with crusty unsentimentality, looks back.
The commentary involves Baker’s musical gifts — he is credited with originating the rock drum solo, for starters — and, on the downside, Baker’s self-destructive aspects. These include heroin addiction and an aggressive and egomaniacal nature, which have alienated bandmates and hurt family members.
Clapton says he kept a distance from Baker, describing him as “threatening to me and what I would call my sobriety.”
The forever disagreeable Baker, meanwhile, says unprintable things about departed rock drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham, deeming himself, with his jazz roots, superior.
Bulger doesn’t dig deep into Baker or the drummer psyche. Nor does the film provide substantial specifics on what, other than the famed solos, has made Baker’s drumming so unique.
But overall, the film is an informative portrait and an involving real-life tragicomedy presented with shades often missing from celebrity profiles. It also nicely deals with the question of whether possessing superb talent lets one off the hook for behaving badly.
“I cannot question anyone with end results that perfect,” says the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, referring to Baker’s musical triumphs versus his issues of inner character.
Those who have dealt intimately with Baker, including a drummer son who describes being rejected by his father, may disagree, however. And Bulger doesn’t let his admiration for his subject weaken his presentation of Baker’s problematic side.
The title is no teaser. Baker shouts a threat containing his favorite expletive and attacks Bulger with a cane in what will surely emerge as one of the year’s most memorable opening scenes.