Step aside, Clapton, it’s time to give the drummer some. Jay Bulger’s debut, Beware of Mr. Baker, is a captivating documentary on Ginger Baker, known primarily as the drummer and founding member of the late Sixties supergroup Cream. A power trio comprised of Baker, bassist Jack Bruce and guitar “god” Eric Clapton, Cream burned through the U.K and the U.S. with their unique version of blues-based, psychedelic-tinged heavy rock before disbanding after only two years in 1968. Forty years later, Bulger sought out the reclusive Baker and found a violent old curmudgeon living in debt on a gated estate in South Africa, huffing through a morphine mask as he tries to figure out how to keep his 39 polo ponies and the 27-year old wife who he met on the internet.
Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker is a flame-haired wild man who’s cheated death many times over, been kicked out of a handful of countries, and consumed enough hard drugs to tranquilize and then revive a stable of elephants. The man is a real hoot, and somehow comes across as a loveable rogue (in the words of Clapton) in spite of his utterly abhorrent behavior toward his friends and family. Few people have received glowing endorsements from the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten, and Baker is one of them. His ribald anecdotes and rollercoaster of a life story will undoubtedly make Beware of Mr. Baker a “must-see” film on the documentary circuit. But take away the A-list talking heads, the vomit-soaked stories, and the endearing, temporarily toothless grin and you still have a biography in need of recognition because Ginger Baker is one of the greatest drummers to ever pick up a stick.
Like Charlie Watts, John Densmore, Mitch Mitchell, and others, Ginger Baker came from a background in jazz, though he is self-taught. His jazz chops are most evident in his complete mastery of polyrhythms, and his often oddball time signatures. Watch him play and you’ll witness a freaky-looking redheaded spider stretched out across his drum set, his arms and legs in service to the lopsided symmetry of a kit with two bass drums. Baker could play just as loud and as raw as those gifted cretins John Bonham and Keith Moon, but he would also straighten his back and calmly look down his nose at his cymbals while tapping out a syncopated jazz beat with a cigarette dangling from his mouth—just like his idol and mentor, Phil Seamen. It was Seamen who introduced Baker to his twin obsessions of heroin and African drumming (the polo would come later). This African influence stands out in all of Baker’s work, especially in the deep DOONG DOONG DOONG DOONG sound that he makes when he hits his Toms, as opposed to the snare-heavy sound of classic rock. In 1971 after his experiences with Cream, Blind Faith, and Ginger Baker’s Air Force all turned sour he traveled across the Sahara to West Africa to kick heroin and hone his style. (See Tony Palmer’s 1971 documentary Ginger Baker in Africa, Jay Bulger’s inspiration for Beware of Mr. Baker.) This was around the same time that his former band mate and blue-eyed bluesman Eric Clapton spewed a notoriously racist, drunken rant in between songs at a gig in Birmingham in 1976, yelling for the need to “keep Britain white.” Meanwhile, back in Nigeria Ginger Baker was jamming with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, 10 steps ahead of his European and American contemporaries. (Clapton’s “indiscretion” understandably isn’t addressed in the documentary, but I thought I’d mention it all the same.)
Beware of Mr. Baker is a compelling film insofar as G.B. is an engaging and worthy subject. Bulger’s coverage is thorough and his collection of footage is bracing. The editing is quick with a lot of eye-catching split-screens. One briefly kaleidoscopic, abstract sequence of his drumming accompanies Baker’s yarns better than the animations that occur throughout the film. Kudos to the talented artists, but the use of nifty, shaky-lined animations in documentaries should have reached its saturation point a long time ago. Bulger’s on-screen presence and a few of his lofty questions are also irritating, although the footage of Baker breaking his nose with a cane provides the film with neat bookends. The 400 Blows–style freeze frame on the director’s bloody mug near the close of the film is nonetheless a bit over the top. An ex-boxer who named his production company “Pugilist at Rest Productions,” Bulger shouldn’t throw a hissy fit when an elderly man smacks him in the face with a cane. He learned the hard way that it’s never a good idea to provoke an angry redhead.