Beware of Mr. Baker Review

You clearly don’t want to piss the notorious Ginger Baker off, but this is what debut director Jay Bulgar can’t help but do, as even innocuous questions like why don’t you take up the drums again? Or prompts for elaboration or any kind of analysis from Bulgar are met with the utmost contempt from Baker (Baker: “Fuck, why do we have to talk about this shit?!”). Bulgar is also whacked with a crutch, and repeatedly insulted by the famously reluctant and belligerent interviewee (only Lou Reed can compete for sheer malevolence).  So it really is a feat in itself that the courageous and obviously determined Bulgar was able to get any insights or anecdotes at all from Baker, let alone that many of the insights and anecdotes were poignant, revealing and interesting. It must’ve taken a long time and a hell of a lot of editing and patience and for that alone he deserves the Jury Prize at South By Southwest.

We also see Baker as a lonely, restless man unable to settle anywhere for long to the frustration of his wives, and one who consistently complains of being broke and not getting any royalties, but who spends all his money on transporting his cars and buying  horses;  his other passion apart from drumming being of all things polo. The cuts between him and the other members of Cream, who as the film relates broke up due to Baker and Bruce’s fighting, also shows how much Baker perceives things differently to everyone-else.  Claiming that the reason he pulled a knife on Bruce was that he played on his solos, while Bruce emphatically says he didn’t (and though he could also be trying to look good, Bruce’s version seems more likely).

We also learn about key moments in his life that shaped his self-destruction, such as how one of his jazz drumming heroes, Phil Seaman, introduced him to heroin and African drumming, and how he got hooked to heroin as he thought it would improve his drumming. Aided by key contributors including Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Mickey Hart, Femi Kuti, Nick Mason, Stewart Copeland, Stevie Winwood and his various wives (he had three, previous to the current one who remains mostly a silent presence in the film, perhaps tellingly only speaking to hesitatingly confirm that he’s a good stepfather) and children. We get a portrait of a man who was also innovative and highly influential, the first to bring in the drum solo and one of the first Western musicians to promote African music and live in Nigeria amongst the poor, playing with Fela Kuti.

It is also rather sad to see how much Baker thinks of Clapton as his only ‘best friend’ while Clapton, who comes across as rather passive and meek (reduced to tears by the band fights and running from any sign of trouble), asserts that he doesn’t think he even really knows Baker as he never got that involved in his life. Even more poignant moments are when we hear from his son Kofi (a talented drumming instructor) who is clearly still bitter about his neglect and no longer sees him. And for good reason as Baker abandons him with a farewell that consists of dismissing his drumming ability as ‘shit’ and effectively saying he doesn’t matter to him. Nice.

The documentary is well bolstered by a judicious use of never-before-seen personal and archive footage such as Kofi and Baker drumming happily together, Baker in Nigeria and plenty of good live footage and photographs. The film is also enhanced by atmospheric illustrated animations by Dave Bell and Joe Scarpulla which vividly imagine scenes in Baker’s life.

If there are any criticisms it’s that visually the quick montage cuts to audio of Baker drumming is a tad overused and a bit gimmicky. And I would’ve also liked to have more direct questioning from Bulgar as to why he treats his family so badly and whether he feels any guilt or regret about his behaviour. But one can only guess that he may have tried to ask these things and not got very far. It’s an engrossing watch regardless and an exemplary examination of how artistic genius can come at a very high price indeed.

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.