A wildly entertaining and well-drawn portrait of one of music’s most tempestuous figures, first-time director Jay Bulger’s vivid rockumentary Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) drops off the festival circuit and into UK cinemas this week thanks to Curzon Film World. Whilst it may struggle to appeal to the same crossover audiences that fell for Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning Searching for Sugarman last year, for anyone even remotely interested in the enigmatic man, his various short-lived musical collaborations or the British jazz-rock scene of the 1950s-70s, Bulger’s even-handed exposé floats like a butterfly and stings like a Baker.
Best-known to most as the show-stopping drummer behind such legendary outfits as Cream and Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s life story is one of towering highs and crashing lows. Influenced heavily by Afrobeat and experimental jazz, Baker eventually found himself playing with one of the first true stadium rock bands, Cream, flourishing such iconic tracks as I Feel Free and Sunshine of Your Love with intricate solos and driving rhythms. Capped off with contributions from the likes of Carlos Santana, Stewart Copeland, Lars Ulrich and Baker’s fellow Cream alumni Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, Bulger’s hard-nosed (or should that be broken-nosed) testimonial reveals the haunted soul behind the headlines.
Opening to a shot its shell-shocked director struck about the face by an irate Baker on the grounds of his South African ranch (the film’s title comes from a sign at the gates, simply stating: ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’), Bulger’s originally-conceived ‘thank you’ to the man who got him his first published article in Rolling Stone Magazine – entitled ‘In Search of Ginger Baker’ – quickly evolves into a far more interesting and intriguing appreciation of an artist and his demons. Cash-strapped and defibrillator-dependent, an ageing Baker talks us charismatically through the key moments of his life; those he strives to remember, and others he’s keen to forget. Tellingly, the drummer’s taste for cigarettes certainly hasn’t dissipated.
What does comes as a surprise, however, is the fact that despite the magnetic presence of Ginger and the bolshy, bravado interview style of Bulger (a former boxer, no less), Beware of Mr. Baker’s real star is deputising feature editor Abhay Sofsky. Weaving together starry talking head interviews with electrifying archive footage and expressive (if slightly out of place) animation into one coherent whole is no mean feat, and Sofsky’s inaugural project fully deserves comparison with Chris King/Gregers Sall’s sterling work on Asif Kapadia’s award-winning Senna (2010).
A deceptively unconventional rock ‘n’ roll tale of drink, drugs, drums and ponies (Baker was a key figure on the Nigerian polo scene, believe it or not), Bulger’s Beware of Mr. Baker saddens as much as it elates. Undeniably one of the greatest talents of his generation, Baker’s appetite for self-destruction ultimately led to a nomadic existence, changing bands and countries as often almost as his extravagant attire. What we’re left with are a series of distant, semi-lucid memories of a life less ordinary, now unfortunately replaced by bitterness, anger and Ginger’s own highly rational fear of losing grip on those last remaining shreds of dignity.