‘Beware of Mr. Baker’: To beat the band

November 30, 2012

With baby boomers heading into retirement, there’s been a bull market on biographies and documentaries about baby-boomer rock-star heroes. There’s a sense of summing up, of valedictory in the recent pile-up of books and movies by and about Neil Young, David Geffin, the Rolling Stones, Pete Townsend and Rod Stewart.

So it’s refreshing to see a film that goes to the opposite extreme of hagiography: Jay Bulger’s “Beware of Mr. Baker.” This intense, imaginative and wild little film celebrates an unrepentant madman, one of rock’n’roll’s surprise survivors, drummer Ginger Baker.

Indeed, while Keith Richards always topped the early-mid-1970s chart of rock stars most likely to suffer an untimely demise, Baker was always in the top five – at least until he seemed to topple out of sight sometime in the early-to-mid-1980s. I always assumed he had died – though I guess I also always assumed that I would have heard about it if he had.

There are a couple of generations of music fans who have no clue that, for a certain period in the mid-to-late 1960s, Baker helped invent the power trio with the ultimate expression of the concept: Cream, which teamed Baker with jazz-bluesman Jack Bruce on bass and emerging guitar god Eric Clapton on guitar. No band burned hotter or brighter, though oh so briefly.

The film tracks Baker down to the farm/ranch he keeps out in the veldt in South Africa. Married, with a gaggle of young African step-children, he sits in a chair in his den, sunglasses on (of course), alternately growling out his story and snapping angrily at Bulger’s questions. The very first image of Baker features him threatening – and then striking – the cameraman with his cane.

Unsurprisingly, Baker turns out to have been a jazz-obsessed teen who became one of the most respected young jazz drummers in London in the early 1960s. Eventually, he moved over to the blues-jazz of the Graham Bond Organization (where he and Bruce, a bassist, battled regularly over who controlled the beat), before joining forces with Bruce and Clapton to launch Cream.

By that time, as the film details, Baker also had a raging heroin habit and a reputation for raucously assertive behavior. He got married young and had kids that he abandoned for the road, engaging with them in his own way when he was at home.

But the portrait painted of Baker by his family and his friends and admirers is that Baker is, was and always will be a lunatic, whose unpredictability was both his most endearing and maddening trait.

Everyone from Clapton and Bruce to such drummer admirers as Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Lars Ulrich of Metallica sing Baker’s praises and tell stories about his particular brand of craziness. Baker himself still has a twisted sense of humor hidden behind that perpetual snarl; pictures from the various points in his life consistently show a wild-eyed, crazy-haired, bushy-bearded madman searching for that next great groove.

The film also shows Baker’s pioneering spirit, which took him to Africa in the early 1970s, 20 years before it was musically fashionable. There’s some amazing footage of Baker playing the polyrhythms of Nigeria behind the Afro-beat legend Fela.

Though relatively brief, “Beware of Mr. Baker” eventually falls into the “VH1: Behind the Music” territory, when it shows Baker’s decline, until he winds up advertising his services in an L.A. weekly and making drum-instruction videos.

Through it all, however, Baker maintains a consistent persona: a fun-loving guy who doesn’t like to be pushed and always had “time,” the sense of rhythm that goes beyond mere music into a collaboration with the beat of the planet. “Beware of Mr. Baker” does what the best documentaries should: It plugs you into a moment of history, even as it introduces you to a colorful, unknown face from that moment.

For a story of self-destruction and dissolution, it’s surprisingly entertaining.

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