Beware of Mr. Baker is like the anti-Searching for Sugar Man. The latter chronicled Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure Detroit folk singer who inexplicably developed a following in South Africa. Beware of Mr. Baker follows Ginger Baker, the storied rock and jazz drummer, who retreated into obscurity to a compound in South Africa. If Sixto Rodriguez is someone you admire and want to hang out with, Ginger Baker is holy terror. He's the sort of person who keeps you constantly on edge and leaves a trail of destruction in his wake -- ruined marriages, damaged drum kits, bruised friendships, broken noses.
But maybe that's the best thing about him.
As director Jay Bulger explained in our interview yesterday, Baker's volatility kept him at the top of his game as a first-time filmmaker. Baker could bring out the best in people even when he was at his worst, and it's just one of the things that makes him such a fascinating person.
He is what is he, and he just happens to be a brutal force of nature.
Beware of Mr. Baker
Though he's been drumming for decades, Baker's enduring legacy is the work he did with Cream. Together with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, they redefined rock and roll. As Baker explains, they called themselves Cream because they were the musical cream of the crop -- the best musicians, and those blessed with what he calls "natural time." It's some innate sense of rhythm that can't be learned. Without it, drummers are only technically proficient but never spectacular. Think of natural time as the "it" factor that differentiates music you hear from music you feel.
In Beware of Mr. Baker, one of our first impressions of Baker himself is violence. At the beginning of the film, he smacks Bulger in the face with a cane before storming off. I wondered what triggered all this, and there isn't much of an answer. This is just who Ginger is. As the film relates his life story, we see a pattern of ruination and shaky relationships. He just chugs along, ever forward, gig after gig, in pursuit of musical perfection, as if he can come to a greater understanding of natural time if he just keeps at it.
This assault with the cane took place at the end of Bulger's shoot, but by placing it at the start of the film, he helps convey a lot of information about Baker as a person. He's a fiery, crazy, unpredictable son of a gun. There's a montage of other musicians commenting on Baker the performer and Baker the man. The assessment: what a great performer, what a downright horrible man. Whether it's footage of Baker in his prime or an image of the elderly Baker stretched on a recliner, there's a sense of danger. He's like a wild dog without a leash, a rattlesnake coiled. There were plenty of times throughout the film where I wondered when he'd lash out at the camera.
But even apart from that, Baker's such a fascinating person. His path to music, his dive into rock and roll excess, and his almost spiritual exploration of rhythm are remarkable. In addition to the candid interviews with Baker and the rich archival footage, Bulger makes interesting formal choices in presentation. It's a documentary about music that has its own crazy rhythm going on. Split screens and superimpositions help convey a sense of polyrhythmic construction -- multiple beats at different speeds going on at once. One of the recurring images in the animated segments is Baker as part of a slave ship. Yet it's more like a viking ship as it traverses the globe, leaving behind fires and devastation wherever it goes. And it keeps going -- the S.S. Ginger Baker, dragons be here.
There's a frankness to Baker that's admirable in the oddest possible way. Even though he's not totally likable, he's never totally unlikable. He's a man who doesn't censor himself, and that kind of arrogance and obliviousness is endlessly entertaining. Some of it could be fueled by ego, or maybe a lot of it. Baker talks crap on Cream bandmate Jack Bruce even though he still loves the guy. (Surprisingly he has nothing but good things to say about Clapton. Clapton, by contrast, says he loves him back, but always felt ill at ease around him.) He shits on Mick Jagger as if The Rolling Stones never happened, and then dismisses Keith Moon and John Bonham as if the people who sing their praises are philistines with no sense of timing. When he's told that Cream helped give birth to heavy metal, Baker sneers and says that metal should have been aborted. Or maybe he smiled instead of sneered. With Baker, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Yet people accept Baker's behavior because he is that damn good. That's the case with many gifted artists. Sheer talent can make up for many personal shortcomings. When Bulger talks to Baker's family, they seem to have taken Baker's behavior in stride. "That's just dad being dad," Ginger's son seems ready to say. When Femi Kuti talks about Baker hanging out with his father, the great Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, he seems just as accepting of the man and who he is. That might be the greatest strength of Beware of Mr. Baker. Bulger resists hagiography and just allows Baker to be himself. By doing this, Baker is revealed as someone who's complicated and compelling because of it. Why stare into the void? He plays some mean rock and roll.
But if Ginger Baker is a force of nature, what kind of force would he be? Fire makes sense but seems too obvious, what with his young shock of red hair and his cruel temper. Thunder and lightning is too obvious as well, but there's something to both -- all that sound and speed and fury. I think if Baker is a force of nature, he'd have to be time itself. It would explain his innate affinity for rhythm and that obsession with natural time. He's trying to get back to his truest state. Time just keeps moving forward, can't be contained, can't be stopped. It's a relentless and cruel son of a bitch, but time is such a fascinating thing to study.
Time's measured out in different ways in Beware of Mr. Baker. You see it in the man's face over the years, going from a young hooligan to a coked-out rock idol to a craggy old curmudgeon. Baker tapped it out on his drum kit for Clapton and Bruce, like the hortator on the warship measured out strokes for the galley of rowing slaves. Even the older Baker, nearly inert in his recliner, seems to measure it out as his restless leg quivers, moved by an unknown rhythm. His foot looks part snake tongue divining some nascent time signature in the air, and part snake rattle trying to give that nascent thing form. And then, you knew it was coming, he pops Bulger in the face and walks off alone.
There's an erratic pattern to this sort of behavior. But what do you expect from the polyrhythmic man? It was all just a matter of time.