Movie review

Beware of Mr. Baker

Photograph: David Levene

Ginger Baker, perhaps best known as the drummer of the super group Cream and—perhaps apocryphally—voted “least likely to survive the sixties,” lives.

And in the fascinating, extremely well-done documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, he springs fully, pulsatingly, maddeningly, irascibly, and irrevocably to full-throttled life.

Here is the trailer:

The title comes from a sign posted on the aforesaid Mr. Baker’s property in South Africa. South Africa?! Yes, South Africa. Which makes more sense than it appears at first glance: Drumming originates in Africa. And drumming is the life’s blood pulse beat of Ginger Baker.

Ginger Baker, known as a rock drummer, considers himself a jazz drummer, the peer of Hal Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, et al. And he lived the life, noting, “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can.”

This is a musician, married to his art, confident in his gift, admiring of similar talents—dubbing them as having “time”—and utterly dismissive of lesser lights; his reaction—and Eric Clapton’s—to the suggestion that Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham or The Who’s Keith Moon are anywhere in his league is simultaneously matter-of-fact and shocked, as he promises that if you were to bring them back to life they’d agree they were in no wise his peers. (More about Baker and his peers can be found here; a truly fascinating site.)

And too, as a musician, he is serenely and completely oblivious to politics, pragmatism, or prevailing wisdom as he throws himself into all-consuming passions—passion for his art and fellow practitioners above all (and that passion works both ways: he famously pulled a knife on fellow Cream bandmate Jack Bruce), passion for a place (variously Milan, the Sahara, Nigeria, and Colorado), passion for polo (and polo ponies, at one time owning thirty-nine), passion for heroin. And like the protagonist in Sideman who could never remember not to go to the bank at three o’clock on Fridays because that’s when the “straights” filled it up, Baker seems never to understand the ramifications of his passions on others—such as his long-suffering first wife (and presumably his second, third, and fourth), his three children, Eric Clapton whose own sobriety was sorely threatened by close encounters with this ticking time bomb, and seventies jamming partner and Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti, whose reaction to Baker’s ongoing polo matches with his political enemies was complete mystification followed by a shocked sense of betrayal.

The documentary is as anarchic and freewheeling as its subject and similarly reined in with consummate craft and professionalism. Not only has writer/director Jay Bulger (who is something of an improbable person himself, as his Wikipedia entry attests) assembled a dazzling array of peers and acolytes to describe, decry, and delight in Mr. Baker (including Johnny Rotten, Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Max Weinberg, Femi Kuti, and Carlos Santana, not to mention Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce), he has also made copious use of extensive and amazing clips from various points in Baker’s career. But what really lifts this documentary head and shoulders above similar efforts is its vivid and imaginative use of animation to bring a cohesion to the inchoate life of its wild, reckless, on the edge and over the top subject. Specifically, Bulger uses visual leitmotifs to encapsulate Bakerian themes: galley slaves rowing in time; a wild-eyed, crouching Baker as African drummer; and—my favorite—a sailing ship coursing a map of the world, leaving in its wake at each port a roaring conflagration as it, and Baker, set off for a new destination.

Exhilarating, energizing, and smart, Beware of Mr. Baker presents an indomitable talent and an astonishingly uncrushable artist. Well worth seeing.

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