Drummers tend to suffer the brunt of musician jokes. What do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend? (Homeless.) How do you get a drummer off your porch? (Pay him for the pizza.) What do you call the guy who hangs out with musicians? (A drummer.) Jay Bulger's documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, dives deep into the life of Ginger Baker, the drummer for 1960s British rock group Cream. There's no belittling here. The film makes you feel like anyone in the history of rock 'n' roll would have been lucky to hang out with the man behind the drumset.
Prior to watching the film, all I knew about Baker was his place on the cover of an old Cream record I discovered in my dad's collection when I was 8 years old. I remember thinking the music was unimpressive and the cover was boring, even though my dad insisted on its significant place in the tapestry of rock 'n' roll.
As it turns out, there's nothing boring about Beware of Mr. Baker. The film opens with a 70-something Baker bashing documentarian Jay Bulger in the nose with his cane. From accounts of his violent youth, his volatile role in the '60s rock scene, his thrilling story of a Nigerian police chase, guns a-blazing, across the African desert, a portrait emerges of a character far more Hunter S. Thompson than Ringo Starr.
Beware of Mr. Baker aims for brutal honesty. The least savory aspects of Baker's personality are emphasized. Interviews have few kind words to say about him. Beyond Baker's talent, any respect offered up is on account of his unapologetic approach.
"There is no myth about Ginger," Eric Clapton says. "He's exactly who he is."
And yet Bulger's film hints at something larger than life. He kicks off with a remarkable origin story about young Baker acting as a decoy while the older kids stole records. Baker would hang out in the booth and listen to music, which is where he first heard his hero Max Roach. Later Baker tells us that one day he just sat down at the drums and he could play. The film frames Baker's first tour to the United States with Cream as a British arrival more worthy of the term "invasion," by comparing them to Vikings come to steal the women and children. At one point we hear the term, "hammer of the gods." in reference to Baker.
There's something musical about a good documentary, and a documentary about music allows a lot of room for play. Bulger doesn't disappoint, letting the interviews and footage speak for themselves in a way that renders narration unnecessary. There are a few spoon-fed moments where Bulger's commentary intrudes on the story, but overall the film treats its subject with an impressive blend of innovation and class. The pacing is precise and compelling. Clips, commentary, and music are woven like a fine collagean effect heightened by Bulger's elegant use of animated illustration and photography.
The story lingers a bit too long on the most well-known chapter of Baker's life, his two years as a drummer for Cream, and it does so at the expense of relishing his far more fascinating six years in East Africa. We get plenty of the typical rock legend, the drugs, the multiple wives, the neglectful parenting. The more genuine drama comes out in his relationship to his craft and in the moments where we are convinced that Baker wasn't just another superstar caught up in some scene. His passion is convincing, his devotion to drumming palpable. We see the obsessive and reckless Baker in tears only once, when he describes how he was blessed to develop friendships with his four biggest jazz heroes, including Max Roach, the drummer who first inspired him.
Baker was born in London at the outset of WWII, and raised under a barrage of air raids and falling bombs. His life was loud and thundering and emblematic of his instrument. As mythical as the documentary wants to be, Beware of Mr. Baker remains deeply personal. The quiet moments with the aging drummer in his South African home contrast with his wild youth. It teases us with the question of whether the drummer's fire has finally gone out or if the madman is still alive and kicking.
Beware of Mr. Baker screens for the Big Sky Film Series at the Top Hat Mon., June 17, at 8 PM. Free.