Beware of Mr. Baker: SXSW Review

Colorful, loud doc digs into the peculiar life of one of rock's most bombastic drummers.

Jay Bulger's documentary profiles the storied life of iconic and mercurial Cream drummer Ginger Baker.

AUSTIN - One of rock's underheralded pioneers gets his due in Beware of Mr. Baker, an affectionate but unfawning portrait that finds the drummer of Cream still keeping the beat despite hardships both institutional and self-inflicted (heavy on the latter). Though its theatrical viability isn't certain, the doc feels bigger than the small screen; percussionists and classic rock fans will be delighted wherever they encounter it.

Ginger Baker may have enjoyed only a short stay, in commercial terms, at rock's highest level -- just over two years with Cream, barely half a year in Blind Faith -- but his impact on drumming was monumental. A parade of skin-beaters from Charlie Watts to the Police's Stewart Copeland and Rush's Neil Peart testify here about his impact, with many crediting (or blaming) him for setting the bar for heavy metal bombast.

Baker resents being linked to metal, and as the film's title suggests, he can be ornery with those he feels misunderstand him. In his opening shot, filmmaker Jay Bulger learns this the hard way: Enraged by plans to let Baker's contemporaries comment on camera, the drummer smacks Bulger's nose, hard, with a metal walking stick. When the credits roll, a string of outtakes find Baker insulting the interviewer whenever a question rubs him the wrong way.

Fortunately he can also be civil, and Bulger lets Baker set the film's pace -- chronologically recounting a career more storied than even many fans realize. We follow (with stylishly grubby animation augmenting the storytelling) from his jazz-obsessed origins through Sixties rock -- and then to years in Africa, where Baker was not just an early appreciator of artists including Fela Kuti, but built one of the continent's most advanced studios to record them.

That studio was eventually shut down by gun-toting soldiers -- perhaps the most extreme end to an episode in Baker's life, but hardly the only dramatically burnt bridge. We meet four wives, a few children, and some love/hate former bandmates, all of whom seem to retain affection and/or admiration for the man despite his misbehavior.

Much of that misbehavior involved drug abuse -- wild-man photos from the Sixties and Seventies alternate between devilish grins and zonked stares -- but Baker also allowed non-narcotic passions, like one for polo horses, to soak up time and money. Though Bulger's camera reveals a man (filmed mostly at home in South Africa) who is now ravaged by hard living and arthritis, it also documents recent performances for rabid fans -- who clearly hope for yet another reinvention by the jazzman born a generation too late to compete on equal footing with Max Roach.

Venue: South By Southwest film festival, Documentary Competition
Production Company: Pugilist at Rest Productions, Insurgent Media
Director-Screenwriter: Jay Bulger
Producers: Andrew Karsch, Fisher Stevens, Erik H. Gordon
Executive Producers: Tony Palmer, Julie Goldman
Director of photography: Eric Robbins
Music: Bill Laswell
Editor: Abhay Sofsky
Sales: Paradigm
No rating, 92 minutes