Thursday, August 29, 2013

Film: "Beware of Mister Baker" [2012]

This is a documentary film about the drummer Ginger Baker. The title comes from a sign by the gate of his compound in South Africa. It begins with a bit of a conversation between the film director and Mr Baker, who is now pretty old and walks with a stick. The conversation turns into a disagreement, whereupon Baker starts laying into the director with his walking stick. That sets up the film's view of Ginger Baker as an ornery character prone to sudden and irrational rages, a man inclined to alienate people who might help him. The film itself then goes on to largely present the other side of the story - Baker as the musical genius, possibly the greatest rock drummer of all time. But the film keeps nodding to Baker's self-destructive side - not just his cantankerous rage, but his problems with drug addiction and unwise business decisions.

The film is very well made, an impressive mix of archive footage and interview material, both with Baker himself (a surprisingly engaging interviewee, for all his grumpiness) and then with various other figures - family members and past musical collaborators (pretty much all of whom have fairly problematic relationships with Baker), with good use of animation for sequences that would otherwise just be a visually unappealing montage of talking heads. But there was a slight problem with the film that had me doubting its veracity and wondering how accurate its portrayal of Baker was. Basically, any time we had the director providing narration or asking Baker questions, I found that he (the director, one Mr Jay Bulger) came across a bit of dick. If I was being asked questions continuously by this guy I would probably have got a bit annoyed over time and I could imagine finally cracking and laying into him, for all that I am not a man known for his violent tendencies (any of those people I have hospitalised in fights will testify that they started it). Still, I feel bad saying that, because for all that I found Bulger's manner irritating, it's not like I know him or anything, and he has made a great film.

The film as a whole follows Baker's career from his early years and rise to prominence as drummer with Cream. After that we get a succession of bands, wives and countries, as things do not work out for Baker somewhere and he has to hightail it somewhere else. Financial travails remain an ongoing theme. At one point during the discussion on Cream it is mentioned that all the Cream song-writing money goes to Jack Bruce and some other guy who wrote the lyrics, with the result that Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker have made relatively little money out of that popular bands' recordings. This is presented as a terrible injustice and a reflection of how unfairly the music industry is biased against drummers and in favour of melody writers (a point reinforced by Stewart Copeland of the Police, who pops in to have an implicit moan about his band's melody writer). But two things struck me. Firstly, a more astute player would have negotiated a deal before Cream was formed that songwriting credits would be split three ways. Secondly, even if Baker had made loads of money on Cream he would probably have blown it all. Later in the film he plays in a Cream reunion concert, pocketing some $5,000,000 for his trouble; this money is all gone a couple of months later.

With many music documentaries, the recurring plot is about the musician who ruined themselves with drøgs. Baker did have his problems in that area (notably a long addiction to heroin), but what seems to really have ruined him was a love of horses. While living in Nigeria (he was mates with Fela Kuti) he somehow developed an interest in polo, joining the local polo club and then starting to buy and breed horses for the sport. This basically was a disaster for him - hanging out with the polo set alienated him from the more radical associates of Fela Kuti, while horse-breeding proved to be a money-pit into which Baker spends the rest of the film throwing away his cash. Don't do horses, kids.

Still, for all Bakers' grumpiness, problematic relationships with family members, business travails and so on, it is really the music that will stick in my mind from this. Before seeing this, I only really knew Baker as the drummer with Cream and as someone who played with Hawkwind for a short period (an episode not mentioned in the film, apparently because Bulger does not like Hawkwind - see, I told you he was a gobshite). The film uses a lot of footage of Baker playing to bring home what a great player he is. So we see him in action with Cream, but also in Nigeria, playing in the States with jazz drummers (in drummer face-offs, clearly the best thing ever if you like two drummer action), with his son (another drummer), and so on. Possibly the most intriguing music in the film for me was that of Ginger Baker's Air Force, a large ensemble he formed after Cream and Blind Faith broke up. Although I do not think he had made contact with Fela Kuti at that point, there seemed to be a real Afro-Beat vibe to this, with its brass and poly-rhythms, and I found myself thinking I would like to hear more of it.

One final oddity. I reckon the only interviewee in the film who unproblematically has good things to say about Ginger Baker is… John Lydon, who talks about him as an inspirational figure and someone who was great to work with. But then the film says nothing whatsoever about their musical collaboration. Further research revealed that he did indeed play drums for a couple of tracks on Album (now available as Download?), though apparently he never actually met Lydon during the recording process.

image source

An inuit panda production


Andrew Sherman said...

Did you read the NME in 1981? They had an April Fool's joke that PiL (then without a drummer) were hiring Ginger Baker. I'm sure that's why JR did hire him later for Album.

ian said...