By John E. McGlothlin, Weeping Elvis guest contributor
Ginger Baker doesn’t mind if you are a critic. He only asks that you come to his house in the backwoods of South Africa and confront him directly—so he can “put you in the hospital.” So goes the key scene in Beware of Mr. Baker, the documentary that earned the Grand Jury prize after its world premiere at the SXSW 2012 Film Festival this week: Baker bloodies the nose of filmmaker Jay Bulger with his cane.
Mr. Baker traces the Cream drummer’s career through five bands, four wives and three continents, and those who who know him only through his work with Eric Clapton are in for many, many surprises. The life of the movie began as a Rolling Stone article written by Bulger, who called Baker out of the blue after discovering the legend was alive and self-exiled at a South African ranch. Baker was out of the music business and nearly out of money, thanks to both bad luck (royalties don’t favor drummers, even when they arrange songs) and bad decisions (an obsession with buying polo horses). But it becomes clear over the course of the film that Ginger Baker is not some indulgent rock star—he is a musical genius whose manic thirst for creative fulfillment overwhelmed everything else is his life, leaving bands and family alike discarded by the side of his musical road.
Starting as a teenage jazz drummer in working-class London, Baker soon met his hero, Phil Seaman, and gained from him a lifelong appreciation for both African rhythms and heroin. As he pushed further into R&B and rock, his talent made him the natural choice for multiple influential bands, even as his madman nature and spiraling addiction helped tear each of those bands apart.
After gaining notice with the Graham Bond Organization and worldwide fame with Cream, he started his own band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, only to have it quickly dissolve as well. He then made his boldest leap, to Africa, where he drove across the Sahara before ending up behind the drum kit as the only white player ever to perform with Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. He then tries returning to Europe, only to find himself professionally radioactive despite his peerless skills.
In keeping with the filmmaker’s experience as a music-video director, the movie deftly mixes animation, interviews with a variety of legendary musicians and conversations with Baker himself. Still photos of jazzmen smoking are brought to life with moving wisps of smoke, while a tricky metaphor is handled deftly using an animated version of slave-ship drummers. The film cleverly foreshadows the many changes in Baker’s life, introducing us to “Wife #1” and “Wife #4” before guiding the story to those between. Bulger acknowledges his role in the tale—he lived in Baker’s spare bedroom—without becoming too big a part of it.
And for all the reckless behavior and broken relationships, this is no mere episode of Behind the Music. Baker’s all-consuming need for new musical ground pushes the story beyond simplistic drama and into a compelling portrait of an uncompromising madman. He could never have played in the same band for 50 years—or even five. There is something primal and relentless about him which is unique, even in rock and roll. He met his musical heroes and gained their respect as a peer, but he will never quite be satisfied.
Click here to see the film’s trailers.