The world is full of films and documentaries about famous figures from music. Some are designed to flatter, some to memorialise, and then there are some which exist to de-obscure and scrutinise an otherwise mystic figure. Beware Of Mr Baker is an example of the latter. Jay Bulger’s 2012 documentary provides a deep dive into the life and hell-raising times of Ginger Baker, one of rock’s most iconic and problematic characters.
It is an absolutely gripping look at a man who dedicated his life to music – drumming for blues and rock stalwarts, The Graham Bond Organization, Cream and Blind Faith, as well as providing pioneering percussion for Fela Kuti. It is unflinching, clear-eyed, and, because of this, seems to me to be one of the best documentaries of its ilk.
It’s clear from the off that Beware Of Mr Baker isn’t going to be a flattering portrayal of the Cream drummer. The title is taken from the sign hanging on his South African ranch, hinting at why Bulger had such a hard time making the film. Indeed, the opening scene features an altercation between the filmmaker and Ginger Baker, in which Mr Baker berates Bulger for including interviews with anyone other than himself in his film, before hitting him with his walking cane.
“You just wanna push up the people I’ve moved here to get away from”, says Mr Baker from off-camera. “I haven’t spoken to not one single one of ’em since I left, and I don’t want any of them on my film!”
“Are you seriously gonna hit me with the cane?”, Bulger replies, attempting to diffuse the situation. “I fucking well am. I’m gonna fucking put you in hospital!” And with a nose-crunching thud, the film begins. As I said, it’s in no way flattering. But then, with the life Ginger Baker had, you wouldn’t expect otherwise.
The issue for Baker was that he didn’t want other people talking about him on film. And the reason for that is that the interviews recount tales that depict Baker as a deeply nasty person to be around. There’s a story in which Baker gives his young son a line of cocaine just before a gig, as well as a tale in which Baker has sex with his daughter’s friends. He was famously cruel to his wife, too.
Far from celebrating any of this, the film does not hesitate to show how Baker’s actions have affected those closest to him. In one notable interview, Baker’s wife is asked to name some of her husband’s redeeming qualities. Her answer, unsurprisingly, comes in the form of crushing silence. And this is one of the reason’s the documentary is so gripping. Nobody – not the interviewees, nor Baker’s own family – seems to know who he really is. The film cuts between conversations with the likes of Eric Clapton, in which he describes how Baker was a once-in-a-generation talent but is unable to define him as a human being. To many, he is simply “The best Ginger Baker in the world.”
However, the film succeeds where others have failed. It features a number of revealing interviews with Baker himself, and in one of them, he expresses deep heartfelt affection for his heroes: “There were four drummers in my life who were absolute heroes. Phil Seaman was the first one, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones. All four of ’em became friends. I mean friends – dear friends. And that for me, is worth more than anything in the world,” Baker says, with tears in his eyes. Of course, the next moment, Baker is horrible to interviewers again, but the film really succeeds in getting to the heart of this immensely complex character.
Throughout, the piece we return to Baker’s ranch, where he has spent all the money he earned from the 2005 Cream reunion on a team of white ponies. Despite all of the terrible things Baker did, one can’t help but feel slightly sorry for the old man. He spent a lifetime obsessing over his passion, an entire lifetime pursuing an enduring legacy. And, in doing so, he isolated himself.
In portraying Ginger Baker’s musical legacy in contrast to his problematic personality, the film poses an important and prescient question: “do you need to like someone to appreciate their work?”. And it is that question which stays with you weeks after watching Beware Of Mr Baker.