Directed by Jay Bulger. 14A. 92 min. Opens Jan. 18 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
A lively portrait of one of the rock world’s most colourful and combative figures, Beware of Mr. Baker takes its name from a sign on the South African compound occupied by its subject. As the doc’s contents repeatedly prove, this advice is not to be taken lightly. Not even Beware of Mr. Baker’s maker is immune to Ginger Baker’s wrath—in the opening moments, the former Cream drummer is sufficiently incensed to thwack Jay Bulger in the face with his cane.
Though several other exchanges are only slightly more amicable, the director is able to use his bond with Baker—forged after Bulger showed up at his house several years ago on the false pretense of interviewing him for Rolling Stone—to get the goods on one of the weirdest careers of any ’60s rock icon.
Growing up rough in post-blitz London, the young Baker learned to get by with his fists and his wits before channelling his wilder energies into music. During a fateful meeting with the English jazz great Phil Seaman, Baker was introduced to two things that would shape his life: hard drugs and African rhythms. His involvement with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream and Steve Winwood in Blind Faith made Baker a full-fledged rock star by the end of the ’60s, and his subsequent collaborations with Nigerian musical legend Fela Kuti opened up more brave new worlds of sound. Yet Baker’s creative ambitions and mercurial temperament would send his career off the rails on more than one occasion.
While Bulger’s film skillfully integrates archival footage, animated segments, and testimonials by collaborators and admirers such as Clapton, Carlos Santana, John Lydon, and Lars Ulrich, the director’s interactions with this ornery geezer provide many of the most memorable moments. It takes some doing for Baker’s later years to be as tumultuous as the rest of his life story, which also includes an expensive obsession with the sport of polo and often strained relationships with a smattering of wives and children. It’s hard to believe that anyone could have ever lived such a quintessentially rock ‘n’ roll existence and yet survived long enough to spend his golden years still bashing drum skins and thrashing the occasional filmmaker.