Beware of Mr Baker – review

Drummer Ginger Baker proves a formidable, cantankerous presence in Jay Bulger's gripping documentary, writes Philip French

Jay Bulger, the American director of TV commercials and writer on rock music, comes to the task of making a documentary on wild man and virtuoso drummer Ginger Baker with one important qualification: while a student at New York's Fordham University he boxed in several Golden Gloves tournaments for young amateur pugilists. At the end of their extended filming session in South Africa where the septuagenarian Baker now lives, Bulger remarked that he was going on to film interviews with Ginger's former associates. Furious at this suggestion, Baker unleashed a string of obscene abuse and then struck Bulger with the walking stick he's being using since developing osteoarthritis. The blow broke the documentarist's nose, and we're shown it at the beginning and end of Beware of Mr Baker. Like the experienced fighter he is, Bulger took it like a man in the best Golden Gloves tradition, smiled and completed his film. He had been warned by the sign "Beware of Mr Baker" that greets visitors to the gated estate where Ginger has been breeding polo ponies for some years.

Nicknamed "Ginger" for his flaming red hair, Peter Edward Baker was born into a working-class London family in August 1939, on the eve of the second world war, and was deeply affected by his father's death in the RAF four years later. At the age of 14 he was given a letter left by his dad, telling him "your fists are your best pals". This can be taken as referring to retaliating to physical attacks and handling drumsticks. He ran with street gangs before stealing a modern jazz LP that featured his idol, drummer Max Roach. For this criminal act his mother beat him severely. He married for the first of several times when his 19-year-old girlfriend became pregnant, but he has little feeling for family life, and has fallen out with most of his wives and friends, and with his only son, a musician. The groups with whom he played (most significantly Cream, which he formed with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce) were all successful and all short-lived, and in 1970 he broke with Blind Faith to spend seven years in Nigeria, working with the great African musician and singer Fela Kuti.

Baker is a brilliant drummer, whose techniques and tradition are lucidly explained in Bulger's film by Baker himself, his friends and followers. He's a former heroin addict, who thought his habit would help his work, and he's a cantankerous man with a formidable presence. Nowadays he can sound like an underworld diamond geezer, reminiscing at his sunny place of exile. In colour film of his past, with his red hair and fierce red beard, he looks like a wild highlander in Rob Roy or Braveheart. His music's appeal reaches far beyond rock, jazz and fusion fans (with good reason he complains about the lyricist and composer getting most of the royalties on discs he dominates), and the constantly gripping film is adroitly assembled.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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