Gifted and malcontented
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, January 25, 2013
Is artistic genius worth putting up with jerks?
That is the central question around which “Beware of Mr. Baker” revolves. Washington native Jay Bulger’s biographical profile of British drummer Ginger Baker (best known for his work with Cream and Blind Faith) is a fascinating character study of a brilliant and difficult musician, but it also gets at a bigger problem than Baker’s well-documented and long-standing addiction, violent temper, irresponsibility as a husband and father and ineptitude as a businessman. Just how much bad behavior is justified by transcendent art?
A lot, if Baker’s colleagues -- and Bulger himself -- are to be trusted. The film opens with the documentarian getting smashed in the face by his cantankerous subject, who seems to be upset by the prospect of such former collaborators as Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton appearing in the film. They (and others, including Baker’s multiple ex-wives and children) come on camera anyway, mostly to sing Baker’s praises as a prog-rock pioneer, if not a human being. Even Bulger himself, nose dripping blood, eventually forgives Baker for the injury.
Well, he is prodigiously gifted, as Baker himself tells us. An innate sense of timing -- along with the ability to operate each of his fours limbs independently, beating out intricate, frenzied polyrhythms -- has made him one of the seminal percussionists of 20th-century popular music.
Now 73, he plays less regularly, due to degenerative arthritis. But over a long career, Baker has earned a place in rock’s pantheon, although he is justifiably celebrated for his work in jazz and world music.
“You can’t put music in boxes,” Baker says, “especially my music.”
To his credit, Bulger doesn’t try. Nor does he try to put Baker himself in a box, allowing his subject to reminisce and grouse freely. Bulger intercuts clips of Baker musing at his South African home with talking-head interviews with such famous drummers as Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. The on-camera Baker seems harmless enough, not to mention fairly amusing at times.
This, of course, may have more to do with his advanced age than with any conscious mellowing. Periodically, interviewees pop up to remind us about the time Baker pulled a knife on one of them, or how he introduced his then-15-year-old-son to cocaine. And yes, just when Baker starts to seem almost like a cute senior citizen in a rest home, he’ll suddenly bark in annoyance at one of Bulger’s questions, startlingly and for no apparent reason.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” is comprehensive, if somewhat overly glowing. Conspicuously absent from the discussion of Baker’s music is any deep critical context, especially for his career after Cream and Blind Faith, a period during which he alternated between relatively obscure solo projects and collaborations with such superstars as the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.
Still, there are enough musical soundbites -- accompanied both by archival footage and artsy animated sequences -- to convince most viewers that Baker deserves his accolades.
What’s less certain is whether everyone watching will agree with former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon, who, when asked whether Baker’s genius is worth the madness, replies:
“How can you question it, when the end results are that perfect?”
Contains frequent obscenity and discussion of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.
Read about the making of "Beware of Mr. Baker"