Much of "Beware of Mr. Baker," Jay Bulger's portrait of the amusingly reckless former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, makes the case for its subject's musical skills. But the first time we see him, he's a raging lunatic, jutting his cane in Bulger's face and breaking the filmmaker's nose. There's a poetic justice to this early moment, to which Bulger returns for the finale, although he misses the opportunity to state it outright: Bulger works so hard to understand Baker's skill that the musician actually turns the director into one of his instruments.
While a lineup of talking heads ranging from the rhythm masters of Rush and Metallica discuss how Baker's complex time signatures contributed to the craft, the presence of the 70-year-old lounging about his Hunter S. Thompson-like fortress in South Africa and unleashing vulgar reminiscences about his rambunctious past evoke the temperament that infused his artistry with identity. An incessantly prickly wildman with an insatiable desire to wreck havoc far beyond his drum set, Baker comes across as a living embodiment of his music. Bulger barely has to point the camera at the twitching, scowling man in his wizened modern day state to show that even during this period of diminished activity, Baker remains a fierce creature of music.
Even those frustrated with his drug-fueled antics can't deny it. "I'll always have time for him," shrugs Eric Clapton, reflecting on their short-lived days together in Cream, a venture that left Baker without song royalties he may very well have deserved. Drifting from one band to another, Baker eventually flees to Africa in the '70s and befriends legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti before heading back to the U.S. when the political situation got too thorny for his paranoid instincts.
Following an ill-fated attempt at movie stardom in Los Angeles, Baker bounces back at least another half dozen times with various other performances recounted by family (including several ex-wives) and people whose appreciation for his abilities make them the closest thing he probably has to friends. While Bulger makes a feeble attempt to position himself as a character in the story early on, he smartly lets those closer to Baker fill in most of the gaps alongside the bountiful archival footage. The movie presents a lively character study that, by virtue of Baker's onscreen antics, bridges the gap between musical expression and personality.
"Beware of Mister Baker" won the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, perhaps because it was the best embodiment of a recent trend in the non-fiction realm.
"Shut Up and Play the Hits," which also screened at the Austin-based festival in March (and recently came out on DVD), follows LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on the day after the band's final show at Madison Square Garden. Murphy's humble existence and self-deprecating demeanor compliment his unique stage presence, which dominates the portion of the movie shot during the finale concert. Like the band's energizing beats, Murphy is simultaneously effusive and sad, if never quite emo. By the time he sobs while viewing his equipment one last time, it's almost as if he's on his death bed and watching his life flash by. Once again, the movie makes the case for the musician's artistry stemming directly from his emotions.
If good things truly come in threes, then there's no doubting that 2012 was the year of the cinematic rock star. "Paul Williams: Still Alive," which also screened at SXSW in addition to several other festivals (and recently became available on iTunes) tracks the rise and fall — and rise again — of the iconic songwriter responsible for hits ranging from "Rainbow Connection" to "We've Only Just Begun" in the seventies before sinking into a drug-fueled haze. Now sober for over a decade, Williams initially resists the advances of director Stephen Kessler to track his legacy. Like Bulger, Kessler casts himself in the movie as a fan of his subject eager to share his story with the masses, and while Williams never breaks his adoring fan's nose, he does manage to wrestle control of the project. While we never get too many details about Williams darker years, his sense of regret over the time he spent mugging the spotlight in an incessantly hazy state gives added meaning to his music's melancholic dimensions — particularly with the title song, a new composition that plays over the soundtrack.
In each of these movies, the central musicians take on solemn, frustrated dimensions seemingly at odds with the praise lavished on their work. At the same time, they fill a gap that typically exists between musicians and their fans: This truly physical art form not only stems directly from the personalities inspired to make it, but has the power to exhaust them.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Beware of Mr. Baker" opens Wednesday at New York's Film Forum, where it should garner solid business due to the singer's lingering popularity and positive buzz. Meanwhile, distributor SnagFilms (Indiewire's parent company) — which is co-releasing the film with Insurgent Media — may have a good shot at extending the film's popularity to fans around the country.