Beware of Mr. Baker (Jay Bulger, 2012, US, 92 mins.)
Instead of a hagiography filled with kind words from old chums, Jay Bulger's Beware of Mr. Baker revels in opportunities to present drummer Ginger Baker in all his asshole glory.
It's a disrespectful, attention-getting approach that suits its cantankerous subject like one of his old sheepskin coats. 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."
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 opening sequence. When you've got a larger-than-life subject at your disposal, get the fuck out of the way. Let him narrate, let his friends and enemies narrate, or drop the narration altogether (the better documentaries don't need it).
About Bond, Baker says, "He was a fat guy" (everyone was fat compared to Baker).
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 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 animation 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 bands, 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 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 Eric Clapton. The band made a significant impression on Neil Peart (Rush), Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), and Stewart Copeland (the Police), who are all effusive in their praise. Baker sums up their appeal succinctly: "We were fucking good."
Alas, the tension between him and Bruce, who amassed more writing royalties, would eventually reach a breaking point, after which he and Clapton segued to Blind Faith with Steve Winwood and 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 Elvin Jones and Art Blakey, his work with 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.