“Ginger Baker just hit me in the fuckin’ nose.” That’s how Jay Bulger’s documentary Beware Of Mr. Baker begins, with a frenzied solo by legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker on the soundtrack, and video footage of him arguing with Bulger, then rapping him in the face with a cane. Bulger first met Baker several years ago, while crashing at Baker’s South African compound to write an article for Rolling Stone. He returned two years later to expand the article into this documentary, knowing even before he began that for every spellbinding anecdote Baker would spin, Bulger might have to weather one of his subject’s rants. At one point, Baker’s sister talks about the family temper, and Beware Of Mr. Baker suggests that this is where his talent comes from: a pent-up rage that erupts through his sticks. Baker himself chalks it up to “a gift from God… natural time.”
Beware Of Mr. Baker is the life story of a man who’s led one hell of a fascinating life. Welcomed early into the fraternity of great jazz and blues drummers, Baker became a superstar while revolutionizing heavy rock music alongside Eric Clapton in Cream and Blind Faith, and became an iconic figure to boot, with his skeletal visage and demonic shock of red hair. But his problems with substance abuse and anger—coupled with his contempt for other rock ’n’ roll players who didn’t understand what he was doing—made him a difficult person to work with, long-term. So Baker became a hobbyist, taking the occasional gig in between obsessing over polo, African music, heroin, and young women. Meanwhile, he dealt with persistent money woes, because polo horses and drugs are expensive, and because Baker has mostly been paid as a sideman, not as an innovator just as responsible for his band’s best-known songs as their credited composers.
Bulger and editor Abhay Sofsky work wonders with the archival footage, giving Beware Of Mr. Baker its own jazzy rhythm, but they can’t do as much with the interviews, for which the arthritis-stricken Baker mostly sits immobile in his recliner. Some of the stories are illustrated with limited animation, which has become a visual cliché in modern documentaries, and Bulger seems to delight in aggravating Baker by stopping his reminiscences to ask that Baker clarify who he’s talking about, or by asking for more soul-searching than Baker is prone to. But then, that’s partly what Beware Of Mr. Baker is about. Bulger has the wizened, reflective likes of Clapton and Jack Bruce to play analyst. Baker is all about moving forward, enjoying the flow, and demanding that others keep up. Or as Baker himself snaps at Bulger, “Go on with the interview. Stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead.”