Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Madness is almost a cliché when it comes to describing the personality of a great musician. But witnessing such madness – restless energy, a ferocious dedication to artistic vision, and a tinder-box temper – is something rare, especially when accompanied by the testimony of Eric Clapton, Santana and Johnny Rotten.
“Beware of Mr. Baker,” a film detailing the life and music of drummer Ginger Baker, is a documentary as entertaining and impressive as one of Mr. Baker’s solos. It features loads of performance footage, and considerable commentary (often funny and endearing) from the man himself, as well as the musicians he’s worked with, inspired and beaten up.
The filmmaker, Jay Bulger, introduces you to the drummer with a sampler of his temper. When Bulger says that other musicians are to appear in the film, Baker cracks the writer/director on the nose with a walking stick. The filmmaker bleeds. You are led to believe it’s not the first time the drummer has hurt someone over art.
The movie takes you through Baker’s fatherless youth in London, and his falling in love with the sound of bombs. Then comes his first drum set, jazz, a love of African rhythms, drugs, women, children, and an unexpected triumph as a “rock” drumming innovator.
Baker, however, never considered himself a rock drummer. He sought a pedestal among the jazz greats. So beware: If you ever meet Ginger Baker, do not — I repeat: DO NOT — call him a rock drummer.
As it goes, the movie takes you through Baker’s rise to international stardom with the brilliant but short-lived band Cream, his adventures in Africa with dissident musician Fela Kuti, his time in the U.S., and then finally to South Africa. In each place, he stays as long as people let him, but social claustrophobia and angry officials usually force him to move on and burn his bridges.
Through his journeys, Baker leaves a string of wives, and a few distraught children. But with each stop, he also leaves a musical wake, one that throbs and emanates with his rhythms, his vision, and his mastery over time.
Time, the musical element, is what Baker lives by. In his descriptions of respected musicians, he always says: “[Blank] has excellent time.” If one didn’t have it, he or she was nothing.
The movie’s only misstep is a repeated animation, which first pops up when describing Baker’s love of African rhythms. In the animation, slaves, as well as a young Baker, are seen rowing inside a ship. It struck me as unfortunate that the first image to be shown when talking of African music was one of slaves. Perhaps, the image was meant to suggest Baker is a slave to his passion, to his compulsive behavior. Perhaps I missed the point entirely, but the choice did leave a bad taste.
Indeed, Beware Of Mr. Baker is no gushing profile. The movie suggests that for great art humanity must sometimes tolerate a man who loves dogs and horses more than his fellow men, who makes, at best, questionable decisions when it comes to finances and friends, and who will pick the drums over his wife and children. What you think of that suggestion will affect your view of the documentary, but it won’t stop anyone from enjoying Mr. Baker’s story — even if he hits you in the face with a cane.
“Beware Of Mr. Baker” is playing at St. Anthony Main.