HotDocs 2012 Review: BEWARE OF MR. BAKER, As Drummer Still Packs a Wallop
If all this documentary had was that same Ginger Baker beating the shit out of the director with his cane as the skyline of South Africa stretches out in the background, well, that would also serve as its own kind of inimitable success.
Beware of Mr. Baker proves to be more than just an idle warning stenciled on a sign leading up the drive to the reclusive drummers compound. It's a sentiment shared by those closest to him, be they former bandmates, the children that he long ago abandoned (at least physically), and a as-of-filming current wife that seems eminently wary of the explosive man.
Bulger starts the doc with footage of the beating, and then tells us the first person tale of watching the crazed, red-haired man on a vintage documentary, and deciding to track him down at his compound under the guise of a Rolling Stone interview. Moving into Baker's house, Bulger got to know the famously cantankerous individual, and in the way that always seems to happen only to others, this lie of a Rolling Stone gig proved to be true, the portrait of the recluse drummer finding a home in the magazine. Returning a few years later with a crew, Buger sought to get on tape the musing of the buck-toothed survivour of Rock's Golden age.
The doc is built upon the skeleton of the remarkable footage shot by Tony Palmer that set Bulger on his journey. It's a testament to first-time director that he solicited Palmer's involvement in the film, and even granted a producers credit despite the protests by the pioneer of rock documentary. It's impossible to understate Palmer's role in the documentation of 60s and 70s popular music (it may be akin to Bogdanovich's incessant recording of the greats of classic American cinema during a similar period), and it was wonderful to see his role made so explicit.
The sordid tales of debauchery and excess are interspersed with quite lively animations, detailing explicitly the path of destruction left in the wake as Baker's ship set sail after plundering his previous destination. From well researched and sourced performance material to these welcome animated asides, Beware of Mr. Baker avoids being a mere talking head piece.
Still, when the heads talk, they do say some revelatory things. Bulger gets some quite remarkable reactions from a slew of big-name participants. The pantheon of drummers he draws from are mighty indeed, but it's the comments from Clapton and Baker that are the most revealing. Bulger himself said he knew next to nothing about Cream at their heyday, but it's more likely the recognition by Baker's former bandmates of what Baker may have gone through during his stay with the drummer that allows them to open up for perhaps the first time in such an open, self-reflective way.
Yet it's Baker's own warts-and-all testimony that's the core of the film. He delves, if reluctantly, about his path from the Blues clubs of mid-60s London, to his gig with Graham Bond leading to the explosion that was Cream. Equal time is given to his subsequent works, from the exceptional work done with Felu Kuti when Baker migrated to Lagos, to his military-monikered forays with Baker's Air Force and the Baker Gurvitz Army.
Bulger's film fills an important niche, assembling a fine group of witnesses, both personal an professional, to give a well rounded tale about the man at the heart of the film. Baker's talent is well documented, but his explosive rage and wild antics haven't been contextualized in nearly as neat a package, and yet this is done without ever succumbing to whitewashing the very cruel and selfish behaviour that has been exhibited off stage.
There's some mild pacing issues by the end, but the film reveals remarkable promise from the filmmaker should he choose to delve so deeply into another titan of popular music. Deftly presented, with appropriate respect for the past but a clear sense of intellectual curiosity mixed with editorial detachment, one need not fear from the warnings about Mr. Baker, as long as you duck from the swings of his cane you should be fine reveling in the beauty of his music, the respect shared by those that either know him best, those that idolize him from his recordings, or even those still emotionally scared from of his personal rampages.
It may serve as a premature obituary from a man defying the odds and still going reasonably strong (he played a gig just weeks ago), but Beware of Mr. Baker remains an impressive, compelling film