Dedicated followers of the percussive arts will tell you that drummers often fall very broadly into two categories: the first consists of sought after session players, most of whom come from a formally tutored jazz background, most of whom are among the finest and most technically gifted in the world, and most of whom are anonymous to the wider public. The second consists of famous drummers who often lack the advanced technique and musicality of session players, but whose membership of legendary bands has given them a status that far exceeds the limits of their ability. Step forward, Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts.
Someone who has probably got a foot in both camps is Ginger Baker, the infamously difficult sticksman for the iconic rock band Cream, and the subject of Jay Bulger’s excellent documentary Beware of Mr Baker. Baker certainly has an innovative and mesmerizingly loud and repetitive style (and I don’t mean that pejoratively), a sort of cross between Animal from The Muppets and Philip Glass, but the proclamations of various talking heads in the film that Baker is “the greatest drummer of all time” belie the fact there were many better than him, although his arrogant penchant for publicly dismissing his peers whilst singing his own praises would certainly suggest he agrees with such an accolade. Still, what Baker lacked musically he more than made up for in commitment, with manic levels of energy expended on stage, often sustained by the heavy drug use that began in his early 20s.
For a rockumentary biopic such as this, an appraisal of Baker’s musical talent is merely half the story. For all his ability, Baker is a slippery customer, and often breathtakingly unpleasant – which naturally makes him an ideal subject, and compulsively watchable, too. Beware of Mr Baker is not always comfortable viewing; foul of temper and prone to bouts of violence, Baker gets proceedings off to a dramatic start before the film’s opening credits, when, incandescent with rage about Bulger’s plan to include some of Baker’s ex-friends in the film, the drummer attacks the director with a metal walking stick. Baker’s bellowing, and the threats hissed through gritted teeth are all very real, as is the blood that leaks from a fresh wound on the bridge of Bulger’s broken nose.
With such a crazy narrative agenda set, Beware of Mr Baker becomes compelling viewing, primarily due to Baker’s unpredictability. With each new scene, it’s unclear whether Bulger will be conversing with a sullen, impatient, rude and aggressive subject, or one who just about tolerates being asked to reminisce about his life and experiences. What gives relief to the tension that Baker’s moods create are the fascinating musical scenes that punctuate the film, and these encompass the entire span of Baker’s career.
Following his peak period with Cream and Blind Faith, it’s not surprising that Baker disassociated himself with his former life and retreated to rural Africa, because he clearly hurt and alienated those closest to him (he abruptly left his first wife for a teenage friend of his daughter, leaving the family at the mercy of bailiffs), or in the case of bandmates, he frightened them away altogether, at least for many years afterwards. (This is brought graphically home when Baker recalls, with no emotion, the occasion on which he badly beat up and pulled a knife on Cream’s bass player, Jack Bruce).
The canny Bulger realises that what is as important as the music is examining Baker’s relationships with others, and others’ perceptions of Baker, too, and he weaves these elements skillfully between the film’s musical scenes. There are many such moments, all very revealing, and one of the best uses the excellent juxtaposition of two consecutive scenes: in the first, Baker speaks with an uncharacteristically emotional and trembling voice about his old bandmate Eric Clapton, stating: “He’s my best mate on the planet, and he always will be, OK?” Bulger then cuts straight to an interview with Clapton, who says with matter-of-fact detachment: “Do I really know Ginger that well? I didn’t take the effort, the time, the risk to step into his life and become a part of it”. Ouch.
This kind of dichotomy seems to have characterised Baker’s life: he has lurched between moods, between friends, between bands, between relationships and even between countries (he first relocated to a troubled Nigeria in the early ‘70s to open a recording studio, which was attacked by hostile government troops and destroyed), but it appears he has rarely connected with anyone or anything – except the drums, of course. His copious drug habit, his wild behaviour and the bridges he has burned clearly haven’t helped his turbulent situation, and who wouldn’t squirm during the very long pause that Baker’s current wife takes when asked by Bulger: “Is Ginger a good stepfather?”
Another telling sequence occurs when Baker is discussing his early childhood. He first speaks about his father, an officer in the British Army who lost his life towards the end of WWII, when Baker was just four. “He was a hero, my Dad”, says Baker with great pride, before giving quiet remembrance to his school friends killed by the Luftwaffe’s night-time bombing raids over London, and then finally remarking upon the empty classroom desks in school the following day. “I thought the bombs were great”, he continues brightly and somewhat tactlessly: “I still love explosions to this day! Yeah, I love a good disaster”.
Amidst such insensitivity, there are some poignant and sad moments too, and they are mostly unspoken. Considering the appalling treatment Baker has meted out to friends and family, it’s hard not to notice that he seems to have developed a deep love for his numerous pets and animals (“horses don’t let you down, nor do dogs”), affection that has been sorely lacking in most of his dealings with fellow humans over the years, particularly his adult son Kofi, who seems bemused as to why his father has shown so little interest in his life. It’s all rather heart-breaking really, and probably stems from the unresolved anger Baker feels over losing his father at such a young age.
Despite being a profligate spender during his Cream years, it’s nevertheless surprising to find out that Baker is struggling financially these days, particularly considering his status and the reputed £4m he was paid to participate in the Cream reunion concerts in 2005. Most significant of all, though, are Baker’s numerous health issues. Though he still manages to remain partially active with Jazz Confusion, his excellent quartet, Baker now has a chronic smoking-related lung disease and painful, degenerative osteoarthritis in his spine, the latter of which will slowly take drumming away from him in the next few years.
Such has been the intensity of Baker’s lifestyle that it is a miracle he has got this far. With the end of drumming in sight, Bulger creates a great moment that visually symbolises the inevitable musical inactivity that awaits Baker in the near future: it features a very long, lingering shot of a beautiful DW drum kit that sits silently and unplayed in Baker’s wood-paneled home. It’s a spark of real artfulness, and rather serene, too – in stark contrast to the mania, chaos and upset that has surrounded Baker throughout much of his troubled career.
The extras are very sparse, with just a trailer included.