Saturday, February 3, 2024

Stranger Flashback: Beware of Mr. Baker

This is a revived version of a Line Out post from 2013 (without any notice, The Stranger purged every single post from the internet some time after they pulled the plug on their music blog in 2014).

FILM/TV Mar 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm 
The Asshole Glory of Ginger Baker KATHY FENNESSY

(Jay Bulger, 2012, US, 92 minutes)

Instead of a hagiography filled with kind words from old chums, boxer-turned-filmmaker Jay Bulger's documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker, revels in opportunities to present drummer Ginger Baker in all his asshole glory.

It's a disrespectful, attention-generating approach that suits its cantankerous subject like one of his fashionable sheepskin coats from the 1960s. According to an IMDb user who caught the film at a London screening, the "fractious Q&A...ended with shouting, swearing, recriminations all round, and Jay Bulger seemingly storming off stage."

About Bond, Baker says, "He was a fat guy" (everyone was fat compared to Baker).

Unfortunately, Bulger films himself as if he were part of the profile—no wonder Baker, who now lives in South Africa, smacked him in the face with his cane in the instantly-infamous opening sequence. When you've got a larger-than-life subject at your disposal, get the fuck out of the way. Let the guy narrate, let his friends and enemies narrate oral history-style, or drop the narration altogether (the better documentaries don't need it).

After that unsteady start, Bulger rights the ship by stepping aside and letting the 73-year-old musician tell the story in his own nicotine-stained drawl, starting with his childhood in war-torn Britain. The minute he heard jazz drummer Max Roach, he says, he found something "I could relate to." When he wasn't getting into brawls, he was tapping out rhythms on his desk until he found his way to a drum kit, and that was the beginning of that. 

Alongside the archival material, Bulger adds expressive, painterly animated sequences to bring the past to life. It's a wise move, since the semi-abstract look of the art aligns with Baker's interest in jazz and African music.

By 20, he was a husband, a father, a heroin addict, and the percussive anchor in a series of increasingly popular outfits, including Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated and the Graham Bond Organization. At this point, other speakers enter the fray, like singer-bassist Jack Bruce and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. While Baker praises Bruce as a "fucking brilliant player"—until he switched from stand-up bass to bass guitar—he dismisses strutting front man Mick Jagger as a "stupid little cunt."

Femi Kuti appears in the film to talk about Baker's association with his father.

From there, Baker talks about Cream, the power trio he formed with Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton. The band made a significant impression on Neil Peart of Rush, Bill Ward of Black Sabbath, and Stewart Copeland of the Police, who are all effusive in their praise. Baker sums up Cream's appeal succinctly: "We were fucking good." (He's right; they were.)

Alas, the tension between Baker and Bruce, who amassed more writing royalties, would eventually reach a breaking point, after which he and Clapton segued to Blind Faith with singer-keyboard player Steve Winwood and bass player Ric Grech. Though that outfit had an even shorter run, Baker calls Clapton "the best friend I've got on this planet."

Bulger concludes by documenting Baker's drum battles with jazz legends Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, his work with Nigerian dynamo Fela Kuti, and his obsession with polo ponies, who appear to have received more attention than any of his wives and children. Yet there's something strangely endearing about the man. Though he insults Bulger throughout the film with pithy lines, like "For fuck's sake" and "Don't try to be an intellectual dickhead," his bone-deep respect for the drums always shines through.

Dave Segal liked it, too.

Beware of Mr. Baker, which premiered in Seattle at SIFF in 2012, plays the Grand Illusion Cinema through Mar 7. Vivendi Entertainment releases the DVD on May 14. Image of Ginger Baker from Rotten Tomatoes.  

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