Ginger Baker is probably rock ‘n’ roll’s most infamous survivor. Call him the original, archetypal rock drummer … and you might just piss him off, as the intense documentary Beware of Mr. Baker reveals with an almost breathless pace. Jazz music was his home, and beyond that, African rhythms. But at the same time he ingested the hardest drugs possible, fucked every girl who threw herself at him and came to blows with many fellow musicians. He invested all his intellect in playing drums, leaving behind several ex-wives, traumatized collaborators and, worst of all, children who never had a father they could connect with.
First-time filmmaker and long-time Baker expert Jay Bulger tells Baker’s storied life in one of the most spectacular documentaries ever on a living nightmare of a personality. He captures the passion of an artist who has devoted his life to playing his instrument with no sentimentality. The heartache on screen comes from as real a place as anything. As devotional as some of the great drummers who celebrate Baker’s talent seem, they all recognize the perils of getting too close to a flame of the appropriately ginger-haired Baker’s aura. “He influenced me as a drummer,” says Simon Kirke of Bad Company and Free, “but not as a person.”
The talking heads are all well-merited personalities and include former band mate in Cream and Blind Faith, Eric Clapton and such important rock drummers like Stewart Copeland (the Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Neil Peart (Rush) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica), who all credit Baker for making them drummers. But, also, no one denies what an imposing figure Baker was socially. Clapton seems to downright fear him, admitting he could only stay on the sidelines as Baker and Cream bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce pummeled each other. In his late age, however, Bruce still cannot help but say he only has love for Baker. “He’s definitely the best Ginger Baker in the world,” he says.
Baker, however, seems to have no nostalgia about his old cohorts, and Bulger wastes no time establishing that, opening the film with his final confrontation with Baker on the recluse’s property in South Africa. When Bulger reveals his plans to speak with other people in Baker’s life, Baker angrily warns him he best not do any such thing. He then busts Bulger’s nose with a cane. “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose,” he tells his cameraman after returning to a waiting SUV, the bridge of his nose split and bloody.
For Baker, it is clear his main drive in occupying his mortal coil is to use it for drumming. Nothing else. Everything else may as well be damned. Keeping time mattered most to him. Transcendence for him could only be found in the shift from 4/4 rhythm to 5/4. Bulger uses Baker’s own words to narrate his childhood captured visually in dark, rough-edged animated sequences. The life experiences that formed this man seem almost mythic. He says he was born into an England bombarded by Germany during World War II. “I still love explosions to this day,” Baker says. He took beatings from hoodlums and beat on his desk in school in a rhythmic pattern, inspired by what he heard on a Max Roach record. When he first sat at a drum kit, he found he could play. “Fuck, I’m a drummer … I had it … time … natural time.”
If ever a link existed between jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, Baker was that. He hated being called a rock drummer, and he makes that clear, shrugging off such iconic rock drummers like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and the Who’s Keith Moon as dull technicians with no swing. In the early 1970s, at the height of his career, he disappeared from the rock ‘n’ roll pop scene to Africa. He could care less about the civil strife and lawlessness of the continent, as he gathered with tribesmen in drum circles to enjoy their unique rhythms where he seemed to find an almost religious sort of bliss. He went on to play with Africa’s most famous popular musician Fela Kuti.
Bulger does a fascinating and riveting job presenting one hell of a talent in rock ‘n’ roll history. This was a man so deep in touch with his primal side he was able to parlay it into a career. However, Bulger does not forget to show that this does not come without costs. Baker left many broken hearts in his wake, most of all his children. Beware of Mr. Baker might seem at first to be a celebration of a man who lived to fulfill every waking moment of his life and chase after his craft by living it to the fullest. But it truly lives up to its title, as the “Mr. Baker” in the title may just as easily be replaced with Mephistopheles. The film has another dimension beyond seemingly celebrating a man who has sprinted after his dream. It might at first seem sweet and nice that his son Kofi Baker learns to play drums in part to get closer with his father, but there is also something fundamentally tragic about it. As his third wife, Karen Loucks, notes, it’s not about Baker’s verve to follow his art but his “inability to stay.”
Beware of Mr. Baker runs 100 minutes and is not rated, but Baker is a man born of violence and rock ‘n’ roll is a music that uses offensive language liberally. The documentary returns to O Cinema in Miami this weekend starting today, Friday, Feb. 15. If other screenings around the US visit the film’s official website.