“Beware of Mr. Baker” confirms that Ginger Baker, one-time Cream drummer and legendary rock ‘n roll miscreant, is alive but not necessarily well. Cranky, cantankerous, and ferociously profane, Baker ends Jay Bulger’s rock doc with a bombastic encore – literally beating the director with a cane. “I’m gonna put you in the f*****g hospital,” Baker proclaims, quite persuasively.
Before Bulger initiated his film, the director rightly assumed that Baker, justly called a “m**********r” by one-time Police drummer Stewart Copeland, was dead. Much to his amused astonishment, Bulger discovered the musician living as a recluse in South Africa. Baker’s crazed Cream days (from 1966 to 1968), a deranged haze of boozing, shooting up and brawling, had been replaced by more benign passions for polo playing and horse ranching.
Prior to the film, Bulger was a fledgling writer waiting for his big break. In a shrewd, “Almost Famous” styled scheme, he convinced Baker of his entirely-fabricated status as a Rolling Stone scribe. Baker fell for the story, providing Bulger access to exclusive interviews.
Ironically, the resulting feature did make it into Rolling Stone, pushing its author into the front-lines of rock ‘n roll journalism. “Beware of Mr. Baker” is a sort of cinematic companion piece to Bulger’s article, meant to acknowledge Baker and celebrate his striking duality as both a supreme trap-set wizard and an astonishing human train wreck.
Early in his film, Bulger rolls out a lush historical carpet of news clippings and archival concert footage testifying to Baker’s superb percussive abilities. Behind his kit, Baker embodied the role of defiant, wild-eyed showman (ironically, he resents being compared to similarly volatile drummers John Bonham and Keith Moon). But he was also able to “swing,” with a jazzy, improvisational style envied by peers.
Baker’s talent is further confirmed by an impressive assembly of respected rock royalty. One-time Cream band mates Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce (whose disagreements with Baker escalated into onstage fisticuffs) testify to his percussive genius, while more contemporary drummers (Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich) attest to his ongoing influence.
Baker used rock ‘n roll as the ideal vehicle for his visceral energy and barely-controlled chaos. But like so many other volatile artists, his light shined brightest for a relatively short spurt, never to be replicated in subsequent years. Cream’s influence on hard rock is unprecedented (paving the way for heavy metal), but the film reminds us that the band’s life span was a mere two years (not counting a handful of reunion concerts).
The latter passages of “Beware of Mr. Baker” suggest that offstage, Baker’s undisciplined nature was a liability during his roles as friend and father. Baker’s son Kuli provides remarkably cool-headed recollections of his dad’s atrociously inept parenting skills. The younger Baker reports that at 15, he was already following his father’s footsteps as a blooming drummer. Feeling ill before a live show, Kuli alleges that Baker Sr. provided him with a line of rejuvenating cocaine.
Indeed, Baker’s selfish neglect for those around him, including three ex-wives and a pissed-off hornet’s nest of one-time friends, culminates in his hermit-like existence as a rancher in South Africa. A perpetually grim sneer plastered across his craggy face, Baker narrates bitter war stories from a cushy recliner. Although arthritis has plagued Baker’s body, his middle finger remains defiantly extended throughout much of the film.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” rises beyond the conventional “rock doc” formula of raw interviews, archival concert footage, and a*s-kissing adulators through its unique use of animation. Like rippling pools of shape-shifting mercury, the images suggest a fourth sensory dimension where undisciplined creative impulses run rampant and free. In one surreal scene, Baker is depicted shooting heroin with a musical mentor. In another, he’s rowing inside the galley of a slave ship.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” (named after an ominous sign posted at the entryway of his ranch) earns points for its dense tapestry of history, personal pathos, and dream-like animation. But despite these considerable virtues, the film suffers from one major liability. It ultimately fails to add anything transcendent to this oft-told tale. Bulger merely backs up what other rock stories have been telling us for years: that musical genius and balanced living seldom go hand in hand.
If you’re looking for the kind of left-field drum fills that gave other rock docs like “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” and “Last Days Here” particularly unique grooves, “Beware of Mr. Baker” offers nothing new. But for filmic confirmation that Baker was arguably the greatest and most influential skin-slammer of all time, Bulger’s movie delivers in sonic spades.