There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Beware of Mr. Baker.
Last week I took issue with a filmmaker ruining a potentially great documentary by shoving his own silly life’s story alongside that of his subject. This week I am going to enthusiastically praise a documentary for doing almost the exact same thing, so brace yourselves.
Jay Bulger’s film Beware of Mr. Baker opens with the filmmaker being shouted at by his subject. “I’m going to fucking put you in hospital!” the legendary drummer gruffly announces in a dense English brogue before bloodying Bulger’s nose with his metal cane. Like one of those roller coasters that doesn’t click-click-click up a hill, but just launches you from zero to sixty once everyone’s strapped in, we’re off and running at a fast gallop. Not to be outdone by the incredible opening footage, the very next face you see onscreen is that of Johnny Rotten. If, like me, you didn’t know that much about Ginger Baker heading into this thing, it’s an unexpected twist (Baker played drums on Public Image Ltd.’s Album, uh ... album) and has the incredible effect of starting you off a bit wobbly and unsure of what’s coming around every corner and believe me Ginger Baker’s life takes some unexpected turns, as you’re about to discover.
The title for the film comes from a sign posted just outside of Baker’s compound in South Africa, where Bulger, with the help of some trumped up journalistic credentials (that eventually become a reality), finds his subject living in relative poverty compared to other members of Cream, Blind Faith, and other famous bands he played in over the years. The sign has a very literal interpretation, as we’ve already seen in that opening segment, but as the film unspools we see that it’s also a metaphorical warning to anyone who might want to have anything to do with this crimson haired madman, either professionally or personally. While Ginger is one of the most indisputably gifted drummers in the history of the instrument, as respected talking head after respected talking head affirms (usually while sitting in a room with a grand piano for some reason), he can be a real sonofabitch as well, with a number of ex-wives who tried to reform him and former band mates who he either ran off on or took literal swings at will testify.
Using some fun animated segments and a who’s who of interview subjects (Lars Ulrich, Neil Peart, Mickey Hart, etc), Beware of Mr. Baker does a great job of covering the less than linear bases in Ginger’s life. We start when in his late teens he was introduced simultaneously by big band jazz drummer Phil Seamen to the two things that would dominate his life for decades to come: African rhythms and heroin. We follow Ginger up through his time in Cream and Blind Faith where he finds massive fame but causes so much friction with bassist Jack Bruce as to bring them both down one after the other. After that there are groups put together to highlight Baker’s jazzily dense drum patterns but, as you’d expect, they also slowly sag and unravel under their own weight. Baker finds his way to Nigeria and becomes a de facto member of Fela Kuti’s band. It’s in Nigeria where Baker falls in love with the sport of polo, his passion for which will only rival that of drumming. Standing out like a sore thumb, somehow Africa makes the most sense for Ginger, and he takes a young African wife who seems to almost grudgingly dote on her husband, bringing him new packs of cigarettes and his daily doses of high-octane pain pills.
Despite having lived a rich creative life, Baker still feels more than a little bit slighted by some of his old bandmates. One of the problems with being a drummer in a band is that while you get your fair share of ticket and album sales, you’re not financially recognized from a publishing perspective, which means Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce are millionaires many times over on the backs of licensing and radio-play and all of that. While he might not have spent his money wisely, shipping prized automobiles to Jamaica when he wanted to record there, and investing in a great many polo ponies, you get the sense that Baker definitely got a comparatively raw deal in the end, no matter how much an absolute and unwarranted prick he is to the folks closest to him.
Structurally, Beware of Mr. Baker hits all the right notes, but it’s real artfulness is in the way that Bulger manages to somehow cut his subjects sheer surliness a little bit, and present it as a sort of endearingly roguish charm that’s practically admirable in its steadfastness. The film ends where it began, with the filmmaker getting clocked in the face, but coming to terms with it as he drives off into the sunset. I mean, there was a sign posted right there at the gate after all, right?
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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