Documentary Warns Us to ‘Beware of Mr. Baker’

Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) opens with iconic drummer Ginger Baker whacking filmmaker Jay Bulger across the face with a cane for wanting to include interviews with other people in the film. This scene sets up their somewhat contentious relationship and Baker’s difficult personality.

Bulger’s documentary is a biopic of Baker and his uneven career despite his brilliance in drumming. Bulger frames the documentary through his discovering Baker’s story, writing about it, and then going back for the bigger picture. While Bulger’s presence remains a key part, it is Baker who dominates the extended interviews and archival footage.

Baker is a difficult subject to interview. Bulger asks simple questions, and while Baker retaliates by telling him to read the book, Bulger stands his ground. Throughout, Baker unleashes middle-finger gestures and insults at Bulger’s questions, many of which I cannot quote here because of their fun phrases. But just as he insults his interviewer, Baker also answers many questions about his life at length.

Undeterred by the cane across the face, Bulger gathers an array of interviews, both personal and celebrity, to round out the story. The celebrities are a who’s who of music: Eric Clapton, Johnny Rotten, Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Stewart Copeland, and Carlos Santana. All of them express a deep admiration for Baker’s drumming, which crosses genres of both Western jazz and rock and African music.

Extensive archival footage shows that these performers’ admiration for Baker is warranted. Baker plays like he has double the appendages most of us have, with the complexity of rhythms that are almost ear-defying.

Despite immense talent and perfect time, Baker never saw sustained career heights. Most bands were short-lived due to interpersonal conflicts and drug use. Baker played with Fela Kuti during his time in Africa but was ostracized from the group for taking up polo.

Baker married young and multiple times, and moved from country to country. He has three children. Bulger interviews some of the former spouses and children. One of them thinks he never should have had kids.

Beware of Mr. Baker ends with Baker playing and touring again because the financial situation forced him to sell his horses, farm, and Range Rover.

Bulger makes some attempts at making this piece visually interesting with the split screens and editing transitions. The opening interview with Johnny Rotten is intruiging and disorienting at the same time. These techniques appear only once in a while, but it would have been interesting to see them more consistently throughout. Stylized animations illustrate more difficult parts of the story, such as Baker’s getting beaten up as child.

Chances are, you won’t like Baker as a person at the end of this documentary, which isn’t the point, but you may come to appreciate the brilliance of his drumming.

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