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REVIEW: 'Beware of Mr. Baker' is a film you have to see to believe

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If you are unfamiliar with Ginger Baker, the first minute of the new documentary Beware Of Mr. Baker is a microcosm of the often-tumultuous life of Cream’s legendary drummer. Apparently incensed by director Jay Bulger’s inclusion of fellow musicians he doesn’t want in the film, Baker proceeds to break Bulger’s nose with his metal cane. Photo: insidemovies.ew.com

Yep: Ginger Baker is pretty crazy, and you don’t even know the half of it.

The documentary, which screened at the Trocadero Tuesday night, chronicles the life of one of music’s most intriguing and notorious personalities. Director Bulger became fascinated with the exploits of the drummer through Baker's playing with Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. When Bulger found out that Baker's excesses hadn’t actually killed him, he decided to track him down by claiming he was with Rolling Stone Magazine and he wanted to do a story on him.

Oddly enough, the cantankerous Baker invited Bulger to his home in South Africa, where Bulger stayed for several months. And oh yeah, he finally decided to call Rolling Stone to tell them he was doing the feature. Thankfully, they went for it.

Baker’s life is something out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  Now 73 years of age and still chain smoking like he did in the 1960’s, the years of wear and tear from decades of a rock n’ roll-esque lifestyle (Baker wants to be considered a jazz drummer) seem to have taken its toll on Baker, who lives in relative seclusion with his fourth wife and stepdaughters on a farm in South Africa, where he migrated due to the risk of being deported. Baker takes multiple medications daily, his legs seem to shake uncontrollably, and at one point in the film is seen using a morphine inhaler. Having once made millions in music (despite his claims that former Cream bandmate Jack Bruce and co-writer Pete Brown get more royalties from Cream’s music than anybody), Baker hasn’t touched his drums in quite some time, he’s in the worst financial shape in his life, and his farm is on the verge of foreclosure.

Born just weeks before the start of World War II in 1939, Baker recalls chasing his father on the train as he left for the war. That was the last time Baker ever saw his father again, as he was killed in the war in 1943. The moment left a lasting impression on Baker for the rest of his life, and not for the better. It’s most likely the reason why he won’t win any father of the year awards. His heroin addiction started right around the time of his first marriage, which resulted in the birth of his first daughter, whom his wife tried to abort unsuccessfully (Baker also left his first wife for his daughter’s first boyfriend’s sister). There was also the time when Baker gave his fifteen year-old son Kofi cocaine and wouldn’t give him money for a plane ticket back home after he played a profitable gig with him. Baker’s fourth wife is 42 years younger than he is, and when asked by Bulger whether Baker was a good stepfather to her daughters, she paused for about 10 seconds, then hesitantly said yes.

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Baker has a habit of purposefully ruining things for himself throughout his life. From his physical assaults and knife pullings on Jack Bruce to his work with Cream and Blind Faith, Baker has aggravated almost all of his former bandmates to the point where nobody will play with him for any long periods of time. The most revealing musician in the film is Baker’s former Cream and Blind Faith bandmate Eric Clapton, who became so worn out trying being the peacemaker during Baker and Bruce’s long-running feud in Cream that he was on the brink of several meltdowns. Clapton admits that, while he will always make time for Baker if he needs him, not even he fully knows who Baker really is after almost 50 years because he’s too weirded out by him to stick around. Strong words from somebody whom Baker says “is the best friend he has on this planet.”  In fact, Baker had SO much difficulty finding music gigs by the 1980’s that he placed a classified ad in a metal magazine volunteering his services as a musician when he moved to Los Angeles (one of his many residences during his life). The film also chronicles Baker’s travels driving across the Sahara in a Range Rover, horse races, his foray into acting (you won’t believe you are watching something THAT bad), troubles with the mafia, and his love of polo.

What often gets lost in the forefront is that Baker’s exploits often overshadow the fact that he’s one of rock music’s most influential drummers of all time. Despite his fall from grace in later years and his self-destructive nature that’s caused him to burn bridges with virtually anyone he comes into contact with, drummers Stewart Copeland (The Police), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Simon Kirke (Free, Bad Company), Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones) Neil Peart (Rush), Carlos Santana and Steve Winwood are just some of the many musicians who sing the praises of Baker’s drumming prowess. At the same time, many of them wonder how in the world he is still alive- and justifiably so. By all rights, Baker should have been dead long ago. Bulger does a great job of not making the viewer pity Baker or even like him. What he does do however, is get them to try and understand him. It’s obvious Baker’s upbringing shaped his life in ways that affected his wives, children, and bandmates, and it shows in the mess that he leaves behind in all of his travels.

As the film comes to a close, Baker faces yet another obstacle that might be too much for even him to overcome. Can he bounce back yet again? I’ll just say this: I wouldn’t bet against him.

Much like the film’s subject, Beware of Mr. Baker is explosive, controversial, and captivating from start to finish, and it’s the most intimate and revealing portrait of arguably music’s greatest enigma that you will ever see.

Trust me, you HAVE to watch this to believe it.


Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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Photo: insidemovies.ew.com