Sunday, May 19, 2013

GINGER BAKER ATTACKS FILMMAKER (and we love him for it!)

Film by Jay Bulger
Review by Don L. Stradley

                    Ginger Baker, relaxing in Beware of Mr Baker
There are scenes in Beware of Mr. Baker, Jay Bulger's riveting new documentary about Ginger Baker, where the legendary drummer engages various jazz players in drum battles.

Baker's opponents play with machine gun precision, sparks practically flying from their snares. When it's Baker's turn, he plays with such concentrated ferocity that his kit appears to boil over like the engine of an old flying machine. The jazz men play with soul; Baker plays with something beyond soul, something darker, as if he's rallying the gods. Surely, if Baker continued pounding away by himself, the kit and Baker would eventually rise and take flight. He drummed as if he believed rhythm could launch him into the stratosphere. No wonder he named one of his bands Ginger Baker's Air Force. 

It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Baker, one of rock's true wild men. Having played in such iconic bands as Cream and Blind Faith, there is plenty of old footage to draw from, and Baker, although not a great raconteur, is capable of the occasional barbed comment.

He's also capable of violence; in one scene he actually attacks the film's director and hits him in the face with his walking stick.

The attack, which has become the film's marketing hook, occurred when Bulger revealed he was on his way to interview  other people, an idea of which Baker didn't approve. Baker either has profound abandonment issues, or he felt he had to live up to his reputation as a batty old relic from the psychedelic '60s. Bulger, smart enough to recognize the value of Baker's attack, inserts the scene at the beginning and end of his film. It's astonishing to watch Baker jab at Bulger's face with his cane, like he's trying to break up dirt with a shovel. What Bulger may not have counted on was that many audience members wished Baker had belted him around a bit more.

Like too many documentary makers, Bulger inserts himself into the story. He seems a little too proud of how far he traveled to interview Baker in South Africa, or how he conned his way into meeting Baker by pretending to be a reporter for Rolling Stone. Bulger made a great film, but there was an unmistakable feeling of schadenfreude when Baker whacked him; Bulger's questions throughout the film are so amateurish we wonder why Baker didn't hit him earlier. 

Baker comes off as feral, disagreeable, isolated, not one to suffer fools.  He calls most music listeners stupid; he says if Cream truly fathered heavy metal, he would have it aborted; he calls the great British blues singer Graham  Bond "just a big fat guy," and says much worse about Mick Jagger.

Baker doesn't have much good to say about anyone, except of course, 
the great jazz drummers of his youth. He openly weeps when he thinks about these men, and how fortunate he has been to befriend them. Good drumming, Baker says, can make him cry. Like Jackson Pollock seeing things in splashes of paint, Baker hears things in rhythm. He moved to South Africa partly because of the exquisite drum sounds he'd heard. That, and because he'd been chased out of most other places.

What lifts Beware of Mr. Baker above most docs is that Baker is absolutely unapologetic. Once he decided that drumming would be his life, he played like a demon and never looked back. Part of the tension in Beware of Mr. Baker is that he doesn't enjoy looking back. His reticence is understandable, since so many of his memories involve  public toilets, needles, and hookers.

Baker's professional nadir may have been the 1980s. He'd hit bottom and was doing anything for money, including a half-hearted attempt at acting. He even appeared in an instructional drumming video, croaking like a British school teacher: "We hold the stick thusly." From there, he played in short-lived bands, and slowly vanished into decrepit rock legend status.
Several moments from Baker's dark past are recreated in splendid animation sequences. His violent teen years are given a Clockwork Orange kind of feel. His first exposure to heroin, in the dank home of his drum idol Phil Seaman, is drawn like a macabre Gahan Wilson cartoon.  Lead illustrator Tatia Rosenthal, and animation directors David Bell and Joe Scarpulla, are at the beginning of their careers; they are brilliant.

Beware of Mr. Baker has the obligatory scenes where Baker's friends and family talk about his self-destructive nature. Even Baker admits he has always been fascinated by disasters. He has burned through his money - five million dollars earned for a Cream reunion in 2005 was promptly spent on polo ponies - and has left most of his personal relationships in shambles.

Baker admirer Johnny Lydon (aka Rotten) argues passionately in the film that Baker's behavior should be overlooked because he's an artist. We're not sure if everyone in Baker's family would agree. Baker's numerous ex-wives talk about him the way they'd talk about surviving a hurricane. His most recent paramour, a young woman he met on the internet, seemed uncomfortable talking about Baker on camera.  Baker's son, Kofi, seems particularly dazed at having survived the old man's antics. Baker, who lost his own father at a young age, seems intent on destroying every relationship he has, which could also explain why he attacked Bulger. 

Nowadays Baker seems frail and unhappy.  Baker is paranoid, and has a right to be; he has feuded with local farmers for years, he's been accused of selling drugs, and South African crime lords have tried to muscle him out of the country. Someone also appears to be terrorizing Baker, crippling one of his horses, and poisoning one of his dogs. Now Baker lives in a home surrounded by surveillance cameras, watching for "assassins." He owns a stun gun, what he calls a "people zapper." One imagines he has a closet full of heavier artillery.

Bulger tries to swerve viewers near the film's end, showing Baker alone in his house, sucking methadone through an inhaler. Baker is 74, and appears utterly defeated by life, too weak even to play his drums. A  doctor  compares Baker to a dying dog that just wants to be alone. But Bulger, who has done some bit parts in movies, provides Beware of Mr. Baker with a Hollywood ending - Baker apparently isn't as sickly as we've been lead to believe, and actually makes his way to another gig. He plops his tired old bones behind a kit and plays  with every bit of the old thunder. Then some old jazz guys hug him and all is well.
Despite Bulger's contrived ending, one gets a sense that things will not end well for Baker. One day we expect to hear about a dead body found on his property, neighbors saying they heard gunshots in the night, Baker's paranoia having finally reached a tipping point.

In the meantime, he's gigging around Europe with Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion. No matter how bad things get,  Baker still has access to his one true love, the one thing that makes him weep.


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