One of the most enjoyable music documentaries I’ve seen in some time, Beware of Mr. Baker is a brilliant portrait of a man who is, by all accounts (and I mean all ) completely f***ing insane. The man in question is Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer of the band Cream (which also launched the career of his now better known former bandmate, Eric Clapton), among many others. The film opens with Baker hitting director Jay Bulger with his cane, leaving him with a bloody nose. It sets the tone for the madness that is to come.
Cream only lasted for a couple of years, but reverberations of their impact on rock music are still being felt. As for Baker, that was but one episode in a truly crazy roller-coaster ride of a life during which he’s played in countless bands, married four times, burned a lot of bridges and managed to alienate nearly everyone he’s ever worked with.
The thing that’s fascinating about Ginger Baker, however, is not just that he was a pretty good drummer who happened to be on drugs and crazy during the ’60s and ’70s (like every other musician of the era). It’s that he was perhaps the greatest drummer of all time, the granddaddy of rock drumming who always considered himself a jazz guy, and over the course of his career earned the respect and friendship of every jazz idol he had – from Max Roach to Elvin Jones.
And yet, while he’s got the full respect of every notable drummer in the history of rock music (most of them appear in the documentary), Baker is relatively unknown compared to drummers like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham or The Who’s Keith Moon. And yet, when interview subjects in Beware of Mr. Baker are asked to compare him to those men, they literally scoff at the idea that Bonham or Moon are in the same league as the god-like Baker. If this drum solo video doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what would.
One of the most bizarre and interesting side stories that Beware of Mr. Baker illuminates is Baker’s obssession with the game of polo, which began while he was living in Nigeria, and which has cost him whatever fortune he’s managed to amass over the years (but he’s bought some beautiful horses). Baker spent seven years in Nigeria during the early to mid ’70s, playing with legendary musician and political activist Fela Kuti, and building a music studio in Lagos. The archival footage of Baker playing with Fela’s band, the Africa ’70, is truly mind-blowing, as is most of the footage of him as a young man playing with Cream, Blind Faith, and many other ensembles. The film intercuts this footage with present day interviews with the man himself (as well as countless musicians who’ve worked with him), and some beautifully assembled stop-motion animated sequences.
Ginger Baker is an incredibly compelling guy, and his madness seems forever woven in with his genius that it’s difficult to say whether he’d be as brilliant a musician if he weren’t also a bit (ok, a lot) crazy. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten puts it best when he says that he can’t argue with the methods of a man whose results are that perfect.
Beware of Mr. Baker screens once more as part of Hot Docs on Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm. Check the Hot Docs website for details and showtimes.
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