Depicting the many lives led by the vivacious and frankly batshit-crazy Ginger Baker, Jay Bulger’s seemingly erratic Beware of Mr. Baker formally channels the drummer’s almost defiant refusal to lead a life that adheres to a linear narrative. An intense, cacophonous solo of drums and cymbals play over the opening credits; the composition is cut short, however, as the audio switches to the cantankerous ramblings of an old man: “I don’t want any of them on my film. I’m going to fucking put you in the hospital.” Baker then appears on screen, angrily wielding his cane and, with a quick jab, lunges at Bulger, who’s left with a bloody nose.
This brief prologue is an apt distillation of Ginger Baker, an impetuous, red-haired firecracker whose raw musical talent and charisma brought him musical and marital opportunities (he was part of six short-lived bands and married four times) that he would repeatedly squander with aggressive behavior. Less iconoclast than a man purely driven by musical inspiration, Baker—most well known as the drummer for the influential ’60s band Cream—is a fascinating example of megalomaniacal drive. Constantly shifting locales (he’s lived in London, Hawaii, Nigeria, Italy, Los Angeles, Colorado, and South Africa) and sampling as many musical genres as substances, most perniciously heroin, Baker insatiably pursued music from bebop jazz to uncategorizable rock to African-influenced world music. Via quick editing and probing interviews, Bulger finds cohesion and patterns in Baker’s messy life, elucidating on his subject’s default of reinvention.
Bulger cleverly places the septuagenarian enfant terrible front and center, splayed out on a cozy recliner, perpetually with cigarette in hand and epithet on tongue. Baker’s acerbic commentary is put to effective use, and many moments only register as blips, mentioned as speedily as Baker ran away from them in reality. Unfortunately, Bulger occasionally lingers on aspects of Baker’s life that the musician would sneer at, particularly his inability to function as a family man. Baker’s first wife and three children are interviewed thoroughly, but each come to the simple, repetitive conclusion that Baker was an inept, careless father. Documentation of the man’s love of polo is also prominently featured, but never coalesces. For a subject as alarmingly unsentimental as Baker, though, Bulger is able to pay homage to a life full of middle fingers while still uncovering Baker’s wry, subtle thoughtfulness through an intimate tête-à-tête with the man himself (Bulger even gets Baker to remove the sunglasses the man hides behind for the majority of the interview).
Having previously written an exhaustive profile on Baker for Rolling Stone in 2009, Bulger takes advantage of the cinematic medium to give us a richer sense of the man on screen. Through charcoal-shaded, animated illustrations and an impressive collection of archival footage, Bulger illuminates Baker’s anecdotes. Bulger, however, is unable to sustain these inventive techniques, and what begins as a fluid and inventive mixed-media storybook gives way to more conventional, talking-head biography. But despite the collection of musical luminaries recalling Baker’s musical influence, such as Eric Clapton, Johnny Rotten, Charlie Watts, Bulger refreshingly resists hagiography, often striking a balance between the genius of Baker’s music with the flaws of the unlovable, and unloving, man. With Beware of Mr. Baker, Bulger is able to wrangle and weave a piquant tapestry of a life made of disparate threads.