We all know how much I love drummers and so while browsing on Netflix recently I was delighted to find a documentary on rock legend Ginger Baker. Directed by Jay Bulger, Beware of Mr. Baker first premiered in 2012 at the SXSW Film Festival and went on release in May of last year. Bulger spent three months living with Baker in South Africa researching an article for Rolling Stone. The article and the numerous hours of interviews he captured on film became the premise for Beware of Mr. Baker.
Ginger Baker is most well-known for being the drummer with legendary rock act Cream, whose members also included Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Cream lasted for less than two years (1966-1968), in part due to Bruce and Baker’s volatile relationship, but they were hugely influential. Baker also worked with rock acts Graham Bond Organisation and Blind Faith, but he always considered himself a jazz drummer and one who was very influenced by the rhythms in African drumming.
In later years he worked closely with Fela Kuti and also challenged jazz masters Art Blakey and Elvin Jones to drum battles. (It has to be mentioned however, that many jazz drummers didn’t rate Baker: Elvin Jones said, “Nothin’ happenin. Cat’s got delusions of grandeur with no grounds. They should make him an astronaut and lose his ass.”; and Buddy Rich is claimed to have said, “Ginger Baker challenging me is like a paraplegic challenging Jack Nicklaus to a round of golf.”)
The documentary covers Baker’s life from his birth in 1939 in Lewisham in London up to 2010 and it is most definitely not hagiography. While his talent and innovation are the focus, the film doesn’t shy away from his feuds with other musicians, his violent temper and fights, his drug use, and his relationships with family (he’s on his fourth wife and has three kids from his first marriage), showing Baker as the irascible, antisocial, violent, and generally dislikable character that he is.
In fact the first scene is of Baker fighting with Bulger and beating him on his face with a steel cane. He also beat Jack Bruce and pulled a knife on him, gave his fifteen-year-old son a line of coke, and ran off with his daughter’s eighteen-year-old friend: just a small sample of the incidents that contribute to his reputation. The only things that seem to bring out his softer side are music and animals. He cries when describing his friendships with his heroes like Max Roach and when he hears African musicians drumming in Nigeria. He speaks more kindly to his horses than he does to any human being and seems to be closer to his dogs than to his children.
Beware of Mr. Baker is comprehensively researched and includes interviews not only with Baker’s family and colleagues (unsurprisingly he doesn’t have many friends), but also with other drummers such as Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland and Charlie Watts, as well as numerous people he knew in Africa, and even the last people to interview him on radio in America. I particularly loved the animation provided by David Bell and Joe Scarpulla which adds a visual energy to the film that perfectly compliments Baker’s drumming.
While you won’t come away filled with sentimental good feeling for its subject, Beware of Mr. Baker is certainly an interesting and entertaining film.