This year’s SXSW had a few strong themes running throughout its selections, and in the documentary category, this was seen in the numerous films about ’70s rock icons such as “Paul Williams: Still Alive,” “Marley,” the preview of “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me,” and heck, even “Bad Brains: A Band in DC” fits into this category. But the Documentary Feature winning film, “Beware of Mr. Baker,” about Cream drummer Ginger Baker, certainly earned its award, as it blows those other (quite remarkable) films out of the water, starting with one vicious rap to the nose.
The film’s title is a literal one, taken directly from the sign at the gate of Ginger Baker’s South African compound. It also refers to the opening sequence of the film — the camera obscured, with Baker shouting “I don’t want those fucking people in my film!” before lashing out with his cane rapping the camera in the same way he might beat the skins with a drumstick. Director Jay Bulger then climbs out of his car, blood pouring from his face, and exclaims, “Ginger Baker just hit me in the fucking nose!” Yes, this opening sequence lets us know we are in for a bit of a tangle with the talented Mr. Baker, and oh, what rollicking scrap it is.
The film follows Baker from his earliest days, during WW2, in which bombs rained on London, and his father was killed when Baker was only 4 years old. It was a rough childhood for Ginger, a hoodlum and troublemaker who stole records, ran around with a gang, and then was viciously attacked and slashed across the face and arms by the gang after he stopped hanging out with them. But always there was the drumbeat coming through him, the sound of bombs mixing with the Max Roach jazz records he nicked from the corner shop, and exploding out of his hands and fists, onto desks or a schoolmate’s face. When finally he picked up the sticks, he found a mentor in Phil Seamen, who introduced him both to heroin and to the drums of Africa, two influences that would follow Ginger his whole life.
Explaining all the ins and outs of Ginger Baker’s crazy life would take the fun out of watching it onscreen, because the breakneck pace and layers upon layers of photographs, footage of Ginger playing with Cream, Fela Kuti and more, and interviews with Baker and his former compatriots (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Femi Kuti and many more) meld into a staccato of sights, sounds and story that is utterly compelling. The film is expertly edited, and it comments on the documentary form while extending it at the same time. The use of split screen is genius and takes the typical documentary style of juxtaposing images or sound sequentially and puts them together spatially: one of Ginger’s old pals or fans speaking about him reverently, onscreen next to an image of Ginger huffing, puffing and talking smack about just about everyone he used to be involved with. The film also utilizes animation to visualize stories and sequences told through memory and voice over, and the artwork is both stunning and metaphorical. When Ginger starts to discover African drumming, the animation sits him aboard a slave ship, pulling the oar to the beat of a masked drummer, his flaming red hair setting him apart from the others.
Ultimately, the film is an apt representation of the man, the myth and his wild antics. It includes his failures and shortcomings honestly, and never attempts to sugarcoat any facts from his past (this would be extremely difficult with the prickly Baker), but the close relationship between the filmmaker and subject creates for an affectionate portrayal as well. The combination of compelling subject with an exciting and expert approach to documentary form achieves that transcendence you hope for in this genre: a melding of subject and text that is its own beast but also perfectly reflect each other. “Beware of Mr. Baker,” indeed, but don’t stay away. [A]