Ginger slice: Beware of Mr. Baker

Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer and walking train wreck of epic proportions, is profiled in this poignant and admirably thorough documentary.

Ginger Baker

Jay Bulger’s Beware of Mr. Baker is a biographical documentary on Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer for Cream and walking train wreck of epic proportions. While most tragic rock figures die young, Baker is still going, reclusive and in poor health but very much full of piss and vinegar. Lest we suspect that this is going to be a run-of-the-mill rock doc, Bulger begins the film with footage of Baker smashing the director in the face with his cane.

From his decades-long heroin addiction and spectacularly squandered fortune to his multiple failed marriages and abandoned children, Baker is clearly a highly difficult person. (When his fourth wife is asked if he’s a good stepfather, the length of her pause before answering is one of the most telling moments of the film.) His musical resumé remains impressive, from his days with Cream to performing with Fela Kuti in Africa and collaborating with his jazz heroes, but his acidic personality stands out just as much, whether in his atrocious behaviour towards his family or his eagerness to slag off other musicians (“Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit,” he grumbles in one of many examples).

Bulger met the notoriously grouchy drummer by faking his way to a meeting under the pretext of writing a Rolling Stone article, then used the resulting interviews to successfully pitch an actual article to the magazine. This kind of chutzpah, a valuable lesson for aspiring journalists and filmmakers, indicates a charmer and hustler of the highest order, which is certainly reflected in the doc’s interview subjects. From marquee names like Eric Clapton to various Baker children and ex-wives, the lineup is admirably thorough — and sure to have drum nerds creaming their jeans, with such decidedly non-media-whore types as Charlie Watts and Neil Peart joining the chorus to weigh in on Baker’s influence.

The film’s wealth of footage is one of its major strengths. Having made a few forays into documentary myself, I can attest that finding good archival footage requires a lot of research and a sizeable budget — there’s that chutzpah again. Less impressive are some animated sequences (a recurring one portraying Baker as a rower on an African slave ship is in poor taste both politically and aesthetically), and Bulger’s unsubtle attempts at armchair psychoanalysis of his subject, which lead the viewer to agree with Baker when he growls “go on with the interview and stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead.”

All told, though, the doc is poignant and consistently watchable. For aficionados of CHOM rock, jazz and drumming in general, it’s a no-brainer, and documentary fans in general will find a lot to enjoy. ■

Beware of Mr. Baker opens tonight, Friday Feb. 4, at Cinéma du Parc


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