Beware of Mr. Baker
Beware of Mr. Baker is a fascinating, humorous and at times fairly moving piece about one of Rock and Jazz’s greatest drumming ancestors, Ginger Baker. From the truly unholy amount of multi-decade long substance abuse, this is a man who should be long dead, and yet here he still is, able to tell his story when he feels like it. Baker goes down as a largely unsympathetic man who no one feels the need to speak politely of, nor does he expect or want them to.
Beware of Mr. Baker is a fascinating film mostly because of the sheer amount of people director Jay Bulger manages to track down to speak about Baker. It seems though he may have not been a popular man for most of his destructive life, everyone has an opinion of him. And that opinion is largely unanimous; Baker was an incredibly talented musician who influenced and changed rock and even jazz music in the late 60’s but equally took an incredible amount of drugs and had an extremely short fuse. All the film’s guests, be it Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Jack Bruce all admire and detest the man in equal measures.
And it’s not difficult to see why. Watching footage of Baker playing is genuinely and consistently thrilling. Cream were an incredible band who perhaps don’t quite get the wider plaudits they deserve due to their timing; existing at the same time as The Beatles unquestionable creative peak; Revolver, Sgt. Peppers and Magical Mystery Tour (which inspired Clapton to join his close friend George Harrison on The White Album), being retrospectively being associated with the much maligned hippie movement and pre-dating Jimi Hendrix and The Who’s eventual super-stardom.
Cream truly brought Jazz and Blues into Rock music full-scale, and so much of that is down to Baker’s incredible drumming. It is hilarious but equally not unreasonable that he should consider himself more important than John Bonham or Keith Moon, who Baker claims have “technique, but not time” and he equally has less than complimentary things to say about Keith Jagger too. Cream and Baker pre-dated the lot of them, and their legacy lives on much longer. Baker himself equally reveals that afro-beats were a huge influence, creating a slightly unhealthy obsession with Africa, but a necessary one for a drummer of his stature. The footage of Baker in Nigeria in the early 70’s making music with Nigerian revolutionary Fela Kuti is a brilliant example of a man who walked the walk as much as he talked the talk. Similarly, his “drum battles” with legendary jazz drummers Art Blakely and Bobby Graham are particularly inspirational pieces of footage, something which would influence hip-hop and rap years and years later.
The film is bookended by two interesting moments. One is the appearance of Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, a man who though wouldn’t come to relevance until a decade after Baker, is an equally divisive and unapologetic musician and artist. Lydon is an incredibly frustrating man, but his presence here is important, not just because they worked together briefly during PiL’s “Album”, but because he appears to be the only guest who truly understands and respects Baker. His introduction is a good indication of what we’re about to witness, particularly if you’re not familiar with Baker’s story or character, as Lydon is his contemporary; a sensitive and intelligent man or reactionary idiot, when he wants to be.
The other key footage that appears twice at either end of the film is the much discussed scene in which an elderly, curmudgeoned Baker attacks the film’s director, Jay Bulger, with his crutch, accusing him of wanting to speak to people Baker has had no contact with for years and doesn’t want this to change because it’s his film. Initially, this is presented to us without introduction and explanation, so it offers us the image that Baker is merely another egotistical rock star who doesn’t care or need other’s opinions of him. But when the footage returns at the film’s close, after we’ve heard Baker’s incredible story and seen his however brief fragilities as a human, we understand that his concern isn’t in fact out of his own selfishness, but actually because he has accepted that he’s made mistakes in his life and he’s afraid that this will be recorded unfairly. It’s an important moment in completing Baker’s character; he’s an intense man who’s unapologetically upset countless people (including his own family) but really he’s a tender and scared ageing man who never had a badly needed father figure as his anchor. Though some may criticise saying he should have learnt from this now, he is only human; a stunted child who has done everything in his power to achieve his goals as an artist (and polo enthusiast).