“Beware of Mr. Baker” is a documentary about a man whose artistic gifts are matched only by his deficiencies as a human being. This would be Ginger Baker, the English drummer best known for his associations with the bands Cream and Blind Faith. All interviewed subjects are basically in agreement: He’s one of the greatest, most influential, most innovative drummers in the history of music. Most of those that knew him personally seem torn between respecting the art and condemning the artist; widely regarded as a madman, he remains infamous for his drug addictions, his antisocial behavior, and his self-imposed alienation from his family, his friends, and his former band members. He has had homes in England, Italy, Nigeria, and America, and he has been kicked out of all of them. A world map, which crops up periodically throughout the film, depicts him as a Viking ship that sails from one country to another, each time leaving behind a wall of flames.
Baker, now seventy-three, lives broke and in seclusion on a compound in Tulbagh, South Africa with his twenty-seven-year-old girlfriend from Zimbabwe, her children from a previous relationship, several dogs, and over thirty horses, the latter of which he grew to love after being introduced to polo during his first African visit in the 1970s. A sign posted just inside the front gate gives an ominous warning: “Beware Mr. Baker.” His years of hard living, coupled with a recent diagnosis of degenerative osteoarthritis, have seriously deteriorated his health. He must now remain on a regimen of pain killers and a morphine inhaler. Despite this, he continues to chain smoke; his interview is conducted almost entirely in his living room with him lounging on a black leather recliner, and in every segment, a cigarette is either dangling from his lips or clamped between his index and middle fingers.
The film’s director, former boxer Jay Bulger, was under the impression that Baker had already died after watching “Ginger Baker in Africa,” an episode of the documentary TV series “Omnibus” that originally aired in 1973. An internet search quickly revealed that Baker was very much alive; he was the subject of a news article documenting his most recent legal battle, in which he threatened to strip in court to prove to the judge that the woman claiming to be his lover couldn’t possibly know about a very distinctive scar on his body. In 2008, Bulger went to live with Baker through a lie, namely that he was a music journalist for “Rolling Stone” magazine looking to cover Baker’s trip to Africa. In a rather interesting twist of fate, the piece that Bulger ultimately wrote, “The Devil and Ginger Baker,” did in fact get published in “Rolling Stone.”
Two years later, he would return to South Africa, this time with a camera crew. Baker tells Bulger his story, some of which is reenacted through strategically placed charcoal-line animation. The rest consists of archival footage and present-day interviews with people who knew Baker. Baker himself talks about his childhood: Losing his father, a war hero, at the age of four; being part of a school gang that shoplifted records; listening to the album “The Quintet of the Year” and being wowed by Max Roach’s drumming; receiving his father’s handwritten letter at the age of fourteen and taking to heart his advice of growing up as a man, of holding your own ground, and of learning to use your fists, as they are “your best pals so very often.” He talks about banging on his school desk like a drum and being encouraged by his friends to use a real drumset, which he took to right away.
He talks about playing at a jazz nightclub as a young man and meeting one of his idols, Phil Seamen, who would not only introduce him to heroin but also to world music, specifically African drum beats. By the time the film gets to his professional career, footage of former band members is worked in; Bulger speaks with Cream members Jack Bruce, with whom Baker had an intense rivalry, and Eric Clapton, who admits that his knowledge of Baker’s life is at best superficial. Bulger also devotes time to Baker’s years in Nigeria and his relationship with radical musician Fela Kuti, which dissolved when Baker began attending upper crust polo matches. Far less time is devoted to Baker’s personal life, although there are telling clips featuring estranged members of his family. These would include two of his ex-wives and his son, who very nearly bonded with him through drumming.
Although “Beware of Mr. Baker” is sometimes too broad in its scope, it does effectively capture the essence of its deeply embittered subject. The film’s tagline is one of Baker’s quotes, which is taken verbatim from Bulger’s “Rolling Stone” article: “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as He can.” Baker’s temper is almost never kept in check. He will, in fact, repeatedly berate Bulger, most notably during a montage of unused footage played during the end credits, for questions and statements perceived to be stupid. He doesn’t like, for example, to be considered a rock drummer – he would much prefer to be called a jazz drummer. The single most startling scene is played at both the beginning and the end of the film; Baker, upset that interviews with the family and friends he abandoned would also be included, screams obscenities and uses his cane to bloody Bulger’s nose. Bulger was enraged until he realized that the legendary madman was living up to his reputation.