Director: Jay Bulger
Writer: Jay Bulger
Starring: Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Stewart Copeland
Producers: Andrew S. Karsch, Fisher Stevens, Jay Bulger
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Ginger Baker is a drummer who got started in the late 50’s in the British jazz scene. He played for a number of fairly popular jazz/blues/rock groups in the early 60’s, but it wasn’t until he joined forces with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton in the mid-60’s to join Cream that things really took off for him. The group were enormous at the time, although their moment in the limelight didn’t last long and Cream split up after only 2 or 3 years. A fiery character with a drug problem even from the early days, Baker was never easy to work with and none of the groups he joined/formed ever lasted long (with him still on board at least). Nonetheless he was and still is considered one of the greatest rock drummers (don’t tell him that though as he is much more interested in jazz). Due to his inability to hold down a steady position, his drug problems and his expensive obsession with horses and polo (which grew from his time in Africa), Baker has struggled to keep above water financially and mentally over the years. This documentary tells his story, straight from the horses mouth (so to speak), made up of interviews director Jay Bulger recorded whilst he spent time with the musician who he had previously blagged an interview with claiming to be from Rolling Stone (ironically the article ended up in the magazine anyway).
Music ‘profile’ documentaries, alongside filmmaker ones, of which I’ve reviewed a few (e.g. Ray Harryhausen Special Effects Titan & Corman’s World) are usually enjoyable to watch if you’re a fan of the artist, but not always great documentaries as such. They generally consist of far too many talking heads of other artists and B-list celebrities singing endless praise or rely on period footage of them in action to do all the leg work. Beware of Ginger Baker thankfully avoids most of the pitfalls of the genre and impresses and endures due to other factors.
After a short sequence of Baker yelling abuse and violently hitting the director with his cane, the film does briefly seem to be following the usual format with a number of musicians giving their thoughts on the drummer, but as their descriptions veer from praise to calling him a ‘motherf***er’, you start to realise this won’t be your usual arse-kissing TV biography piece. Instead the film lets Baker’s character come through from the man himself and his viscous temper, unfiltered opinions and honest revelations. He’s always totally frank, telling of his heroin addiction without expecting sympathy and bringing up things such as his desire to abort his firstborn child. He even calls Mick Jagger a ‘c**t’ at one point.
Rather than simply drawing enjoyment from listening to a bitter old bastard, the film does have subtle moments of poignancy beneath the surface too. Wearing sunglasses for a huge amount of the time, one moment when Bulger manages to talk Baker into taking them off reveals the sad, tired eyes of a broken man. His relationship with one of his sons is a painful watch too, as we learn how little time, love or respect Ginger gave him throughout the years, but a brief moment showing the two drumming together shows a slight glimmer of light beneath the grimy surface. The film shows some of Bulger’s other attempts to get to the heart of Baker, but the grizzled rocker refuses, not playing the director’s game.
In terms of showing Baker’s skills as a musician, there are enough film clips and songs used in the soundtrack to demonstrate this. His ferocity is matched only by his dexterous skill and you’ve only got to see the scenes of him ‘battling’ with greats such as Art Blakey and Max Roach to realise he was as good as any of them. So you still get the hero worship to be expected from such a documentary through such footage, but luckily the no-holds-barred interviews with Baker elevate the film to another level and keep you gripped throughout.
Beware of Mr Baker is out now in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray, released by new label Curzon Film World. The picture quality is always difficult to comment on in documentaries like this which draw on plenty of period footage, but interviews recorded for the film all look fine and there are no noticeable issues with any of the older clips. Audio is strong, with Baker’s powerful drumming ripping through my 5.1 set-up nicely.
There were no features on my DVD, only a trailer.
Full Q&A with Ginger Baker on the film: