Review: Beware of Mr. Baker

Legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker, left, with BEWARE OF MR. B

(Jay Bulger, 2012)
(Originally posted at Take One)

Taking its name from a warning sign adorning the driveway of a particularly cantankerous British rock ‘n’ roll legend, Jay Bulger’s all-encompassing documentary Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) peers behind the dark glasses and gruff facade of one Ginger Baker: wunderkind drummer, world renowned agent of disaster and, most significantly, the destructive member of a variety of bands, namely Cream. Notable in his infamy, Baker is a figure tainted by a catalogue of ill-fated decisions and a history of substance abuse, and here is the focus and subject matter for Bulger, who makes his impressive filmmaking debut.

Starting in the present day, which sees Baker breaking the nose of his chronicler – and, arguably, one of a few of his confidantes – in a characteristic outburst of rage, Bulger’s film then journeys backwards and plunges into Baker’s early life and the wild and destructive career that has lead him to, at the time of filming, living a secluded life in South Africa, having journeyed there to sample the life-changing tribal drumming techniques practised there. Studying his troubled childhood, his beginnings as a gifted but untapped musician and the subsequent ascent into the gritty echelons of London’s jazzy, pre-rock ‘n’ roll scene, Bulger utilises a number of techniques to depict the inspirational-cum-tragic tenor of his subject, whose quick submission to the enticements of drugs irrevocably changed his life.

As Bulger flits back and forwards in time (and indeed to and from archive materials, animated sequences and talking head interviews with an abundance of Baker’s previous acquaintances such as Eric Claption), the hidden truths about Baker slowly begin to seep out; he is, of course, a fiery personality that time is quickly beginning to forget, but he is also a caring and secretly kind man jaded by own his weaknesses. In the later stages of his career, when his affiliation with the short-lived Cream was drying up faster than his bank account, Bulger focuses on his charity and his obsessions with horses and polo, elements that both added to his compulsive personality and monetary downfall. In the more contemporary portions of the documentary, the camera stares, motionless, at a static, bitter and contrary 73-year-old Baker mumbling through anecdotes and spouting vitriolic lines and observations as he puts the world to questionable rights. He is vivacious and infectious, a tortured soul with a fascinating history, and Bulger does an excellent job of capturing him at his chequered highs and miniscule lows.

However much the director’s almost faultless affection for his subject glosses over the darkness, the selfishness and the occasionally unbelievable amount of pain he has caused to the people who admire and love him (especially the family he callously disregarded), Beware of Mr. Baker is a fascinating, comprehensive and sympathetic portrait of an explosively flamboyant figure in British rock history, one that paints an interesting picture of the grimy 1960s and 70s rock climate that chewed up this thumping musical virtuoso and pitilessly spat him out.

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