Rock stars don’t always have the prettiest personal lives. John Lennon (pre-Yoko) intimidated and threatened the women in his life. Sid Vicious may or may not have killed Nancy Spungen. Buddy Rich allegedly verbally abused every member of his band, making scores of enemies in the process.
Which brings us to Beware of Mr. Baker and its protagonist, Ginger Baker, the fire-haired drummer for Cream and Blind Faith. A virtuoso on the kit, Baker was an absolute mess of a man, running through and neglecting multiple wives and children as he compulsively tore through life. Now arthritic and in old age, the documentary starts out with an enraged Baker inflicting a bloody nose on director Jay Bulger. The fire is still alive.
The documentary tells Baker’s life story through interviews with the drummer himself and with a slew of people he played with — Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Carlos Santana, Johnny Rotten and more. Bulger fills in hand-drawn animations. Everyone is basically in agreement: wonderful drummer, slightly insane man.
Baker grew up in post-World War II Britain without a father, and his earliest memories of music involved acting as a decoy while his buddies nicked albums from a record store. But it was during one of these heists that Baker first heard The Quintet of the Year, a heavyweight jazz quintet featuring Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and, most importantly, drummer Max Roach. Upon hearing Roach, Baker recognized a kindred spirit. He knew then and there, he would become a drummer.
Though Baker is widely recognized as being one of the first and best rock ’n’ roll drummers, he would always identify himself as a jazz drummer who played rock rather than the other way around. The documentary respects this and shows not just his time as a rock drummer, but the time he spent seeking the approval of jazz drummers, who he considered to be at the top of the craft. The way the documentary treats the famous rock music Baker made is also refreshing. It focuses on the music through the drum-bass battery, instead of through the usual guitar-singer lens. Clapton, for example, is treated as a sideman to the Jack Bruce-Ginger Baker show while part of Cream.
Baker’s personality is the most engaging part of the documentary. He’s a wreck, constantly insulting the interviewers while dodging uncomfortable questions about his life. At one point, Bulger asks him, “Do you consider yourself to be a tragic hero?” Baker fires back, “Go on with the interview and quit trying to be an intellectual dick head.”
He’s volatile, talented and ornery. Therefore, he’s perfect for a documentary.
Beware of Mr. Baker screens at the International Film Series on Thursday, Feb. 21.
Rating: Three of four stars