(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on January 25, 2013.)
Sometime in the early 1990s, when I was just starting to play the drums, a close friend of my father’s gave me a tape by a band called Cream with a track called “Toad” on it. His instructions were to listen to that track very closely; I had no idea what the song was or who was in this band, but I gave it a shot. As it turns out, “Toad” was a five-minute drum solo by Cream’s drummer, Ginger Baker. This went far above any rock drumming I’ve ever heard, as I’d never really thought that jazz solos could be incorporated into solos by a rock drummer. “Toad” is one of Ginger Baker’s most famous compositions, and to hear it kick off the new documentary Beware of Mr. Baker brought a smile to my face. I’d never known who Ginger Baker was, much less what he looked like, much less what he looked like while playing the drums; this engaging documentary fills in those blanks… and then some.
What I didn’t know about Baker is filled in by him via interviews with the film’s director, Jay Bulger. Seated in a leather reclining chair and chain-smoking cigarettes (he’s rarely seen without one in his mouth or in his hand), he reluctantly tells his life story to Bulger, beginning with an expletive-laced tirade about how everything is in his book. “F**k the book,” Bulger says, “we’re not talking about the book.” And with that, Baker sets off down Memory Lane, detailing his childhood, how he got into music, where it took him, and how he got to meet some of his own personal idols. He also expounds on how one of his idols got him into drugs, and that’s a whole other side of his stories; there are a lot of instances where he’s visibly under the influence of something (booze or drugs), and it obviously has negative effects on his personal relationships. From members of his band to members of his own family, he seems to never be able to stay happy in one place for too long, always moving onto the next band, the next wife, or the next homestead. Volatile and spiteful, Baker seethes with anger at everything and everyone, even at Bulger himself. When we first lay eyes on Baker, he’s vehemently denying permission for Bulger to put any one of the people Baker hates in his movie, and he viciously hits Bulger with his cane, making his nose bleed. Beware of Mr. Baker, indeed.
It is evident from the early goings that Baker is not someone with whom you’d want to mix it up. His wild-eyed stare, his manic drum style, his seemingly confrontational manner, and his strong will are dominating, even when he’s leaned back in his chair and telling his story. Other interviews with former band members (Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, among many others), his children, and ex-wives outline his hard-charging life and how he treats others. Some people are scared of him; others are piteous; others want nothing to do with him. But all admit one thing: he is probably the greatest drummer of the modern era. Some even say that he’s the best drummer that ever existed. Hyperbole aside, there’s no denying the talent Baker has; it’s evident in his influence upon the rock world as we know it, and the legacy he’s set up for himself also furthers how he can be a man, a myth, and a legend all at the same time.
Bulger’s film serves as Baker’s autobiography, as told to the cameras in the first person. While there are a few parts that are dry and merely overextended, this documentary is a compelling tell-all of one of rock’s most enigmatic characters. As a drummer and longtime fan of Baker’s, I enjoyed this documentary immensely, even if it was just to see the drums being played in such an artistic and powerful fashion. Baker moves the instrument and its trappings beyond simple timekeeping and into the realm where each drum has a voice and sings its own notes. To see the person exposed by Jay Bulger only cements the aphorism that you have to be a little crazy if you’re that driven to achieve your goals and realize your visions. Beware of Mr. Baker examines the player and the person, and both are just as equally fascinating.