At his peak, Ginger Baker was almost certainly the best drummer of his generation, a man who brought wildly imaginative jazz- and African-inspired rhythms to immensely popular late-’60s rock bands Cream and Blind Faith (both featuring guitarist Eric Clapton). But the title of the documentary biopic Beware of Mr. Baker doesn’t refer to the fear he surely instilled in his professional rivals on the skins. It’s a phrase painted on a sign at the entrance of Baker’s gated South African compound, and it serves as fair warning to anyone daring enough to cross the man’s rocky path.
Baker’s prowess as a musician is matched only by his abrasive and often violent personality. He mistreated wives and neglected his children, and was tolerated in countless bands only because nobody else can play like him. One of the film’s many revelations about Baker’s volatile disposition comes directly from Clapton. Though he still counts the drummer among his friends, Clapton makes clear that neither of the bands he shared with Baker lasted long because he just doesn’t feel safe around the guy. And then there’s Baker’s legendary drug use, which resulted in almost two decades of heroin addiction and couldn’t have helped Clapton with own struggles to stay sober.
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Winner of a Grand Jury Award at last year’s South By Southwest Film Festival, Beware of Mr. Baker begins memorably with Baker assaulting director Jay Bulger with a cane for some vaguely defined infraction. It then dives headlong into testimonials from unforgiving ex-wives and musicians who relish the chance to analyze Baker’s artistry in tandem with his bad behavior. Centered on lengthy but grudging interviews with Baker himself, the film recounts his many misadventures in a chronological examination of his life so far. Bulger’s work occasionally seems amateurish — animated sequences get too much screen time, and sappy background music arrives on queue near the end in what almost seems like parody. But the film still manages to engage those with no previous knowledge of its subject. Watching Baker’s life story is like coming across a five-car pileup on the highway — the destruction is undeniably compelling but you hope everyone survived.
For all his flaws, Baker stayed true to his own artistic path. He moved to Nigeria at the height of his career in 1971 for musical reasons, largely for the chance to play with the great Fela Kuti long before the rest of the world knew his name. (Baker would eventually leave Nigeria abruptly in a hail of gunfire intended solely for him.) Fittingly, Beware of Mr. Baker’s opening statement and closing benediction come from John Lydon — formerly known as Johnny Rotten, of Sex Pistols fame — a man with some real-world expertise on antagonistic behavior. Lydon is comically dismissive of anyone who doesn’t appreciate Baker for his art alone. It’s not hard to see his point.
Beware of Mr. Baker begins a weeklong run tonight at Zeitgeist Movies, 1618 O.C. Haley Blvd. in New Orleans.