Movie Review: The Troubled and Talented Life of Mr. Ginger Baker

If you know the name Ginger Baker, you know him as the incredible drummer in the pioneering 1960s super group Cream. You know Baker’s name is often listed among a small handful of other drummers of that era (along with Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, and, a little later, John Bonham) who invented big rock drumming and whose talent and personalities made the guys behind the set unforgettable members of the bands they played in. Beware of Mr. Baker, the first feature-length documentary by Jay Bulger, aims to prove Baker is so much more than that. Baker was not merely a influential rock drummer, he was one of the most accomplished jazz drummers of his generation, he was also an eccentric, a tyrant, and a muddled and confused man.

Bulger’s movie opens with the filmmaker’s starkest encounter with the temper that helped make Baker’s career such an erratic mess. As the film crew pulls away from the drummer’s South African home, he swats his cane at the young men screaming about not wanting “those people in my film.” “Those people” are the musical legends he played with over the years. Jumping back in time, we review the chronology of his career, beginning as a young dope addict playing in English jazz bands in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Early on he rubs shoulders with Mick Jagger, then goes on to enjoy modest success with the Graham Bond Orchestra, where he meets bassist Jack Bruce. Despite Bruce and Ginger’s deeply confrontational relationship, the two form Cream with Eric Clapton. The band represents the height of Baker’s commercial success. After just two years, the group breaks up, but Baker keeps on drumming, for Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and eventual Fela Kuti. All his gigs rarely last long, and the other band mates consistently point their finger at the tempestuous Baker as the reason for his projects’ short shelf life.

The constants in Baker’s life are drugs, women, eccentric behavior, and talent. In his life’s wake, Baker has left many lovers and wives, a broken family, heaps of debt, and plenty of blown chances. Butler uses a map motif with a little animated Viking ship to make the places Baker’s life took him, only to leave once all the bridges were burned: England, Italy, Los Angeles, Nigeria, and finally South Africa. The Viking is an interesting image for Baker. A torrid talent, Baker did change the music world as he wreaked havoc on his adventures. In the film, he comes across as one of those individuals whose peculiar makeup forbids his existence on earth to be anything but a chaotic and explosive mess of success and failure. Johnny Rotten, one of the many musicians interviewed in the film, warns us that we are watching a film about a man those of us who live conventional lives won’t understand. But perhaps it is Baker’s old band mate Eric Clapton who puts it best: “Ginger Baker is the best Ginger Baker in the world.”