Review: Documentary 'Beware Of Mr. Baker' offers wild ride with rock's greatest monster
The film begins in total darkness, and an older English man is screaming at someone. "NO YOU WILL NOT TALK TO THEM! NOT IN MY MOVIE! I DON'T WANT ANY OF THEM IN MY MOVIE!" Then the darkness splits and you realize someone was pressed up against the camera. The person moves back, waving a cane, swinging it with real intent. We get our first look at the Ginger Baker of today, red-faced and furious.
"Are you really going to try to hit me with that?" someone asks from behind the camera. That only seems to make Baker crazier, and he thrusts with the cane, rewarded with a satisfying crack for his efforts, and he roars, "I'LL SEND YOU TO F**KIN' HOSPITAL!"
There's a cut, and we see the director of the documentary, Jay Bulger, stagger outside the car, bleeding freely from the gash across the bridge of his nose. "I think Ginger Baker just kicked my ass," he says. BOOM. The main title comes up. "BEWARE OF MR. BAKER." And just like that, you're off and running on a truly hilarious and harrowing look at one of the great monsters of rock, the legendary drummer Ginger Baker. The film manages to make the case for his place in the firmament of musicians who helped shape an era, and it also reveals that time has not dulled his fangs one little bit.
As the opening titles play, you can hear Ginger playing the drums, and there's such amazing power in his work, such raw animal strength. The film begins with clips from a movie called "Ginger Baker In Africa" by Tony Palmer, showing Baker in the days after Creem and Blind Faith, as he was searching for new rhythms in the place where he felt like drumming began.
Bulger explains that he sort of stumbled into Ginger Baker's life, misrepresenting himself as a reporter from "Rolling Stone" so that he could meet the drummer. When he ended up actually writing about that encounter and selling the story to "Rolling Stone," it seemed like there was more to say. Bulger spent four years gathering the material that makes up this documentary, and he deserves hazard pay for the time he spent in the company of Baker, who lives with his fourth wife on a compound in South Africa.
There are interviews with musicians like Chad Smith, Nick Mason, Stewart Copeland, Neil Peart, Mickey Hart, and Lars Ulrich, and they all talk about the man as a musician to be revered. Little wonder. When you look back at the work he did with Creem alone, you have admit that he is some sort of mad wizard, mixing jazz time signatures with the bombast of rock to basically create heavy metal. Of course, when Bulger tells Baker that Lars Ulrich credits him with the birth of the entire musical genre, Baker snarls, "The birth of Heavy Metal should 'ave been aborted."
The best interviews in the film are with Eric Clapton, who seems very clear-eyed about Ginger and about both his prodigious talent as a player and his deficient make-up as a person. Bulger uses Clapton's interview as a way of tracing the evolution of Baker from band to band. I'm well aware of both Creem and Blind Faith, but I'd never heard of Ginger Baker's Airforce. Even more impressively, he went through a series of Ali-style drum battles. He went up against Elvin Jones, against Phil Seamen, and against Art Blakely, and as he observes, if it's a truly great battle, it ends up with two great players playing together, not against each other, and we see enough of that to prove his point.
At his best, Ginger Baker is incredible. I loved watching him, both in the archival footage and the new interviews, and he has moments where you see the gentle center of the violent self-destructive guy. He's damaged goods, and he's burnt down his various families over the years as he's moved on, needing to start over in new places. That period of his life when he first went to Africa in the '70s and met Fela Kuti and set up a recording studio and was happy… that looks like he was exactly where he was supposed to be, like he was content. And then that was wrestled away from him by force, and he started yet another slide into financial ruin.
I feel for him, but I feel for his kids and his ex-wives more. Sure, Johnny Rotten can justify it by saying, "That's what he needed to be in order to make the music he makes," but that doesn't mean anything to the very real people whose lives he permanently damaged with his careless callous nature, with his lifelong tendency to flee whenever things were hard.
Bulger's a first-time filmmaker, but he's got a natural feel for it. He's built this film well, using all sorts of rare footage and photos to illustrate the eras that Baker lived through, and he must have spent months coaxing the interviews out of him. It's a very entertaining film, and maybe some of that is at the expense of Baker and his sandblasted dignity, but I think Bulger's also captured the real essence of the guy, and that's the goal of something like this. It's not easy to get past the shield of celebrity, and it's even harder to get past a persona as permanently entrenched as this one to see something genuine and unguarded, and that's what we get here.
I hope you get a chance to see this one soon.