Friday 12 October 2012

At the LFF: "Beware of Mr. Baker"

The title of this particular music doc isn't for nothing. Beware of Mr. Baker opens with the sight of the former Cream drummer Ginger Baker smashing director Jay Bulger across the nose with a metal cane. Baker always was something of a demon with the sticks, but Bulger had found him living in exile in South Africa, and a sense of the sheer doesn't-give-a-fuckness of the film's subject can be taken from the very fact an individual referred to as Ginger should have chosen to see out his days living under the blazing African sun. Here Baker holds court, his silver eyebrows bristling over the top of dark glasses, surrounded by dogs and polo horses (with which he gets on better than he apparently does with any human creature), blighted by a degenerative form of arthritis, and throughout remaining wholly unimpressed by his American interviewer's boyish enthusiasm. (Hence the cane incident.)

Reluctantly, then, he gives up the details of his life. Baker was the product of an unusually percussive childhood: in the syncopated fall of bombs on wartime London, and the slap of the strap his widowed mother used to take to the back of his legs, he heard rhythms and time schemes. Already, Baker was gritting his teeth, preparing himself for the long fight ahead. The breakthrough came at the age of fourteen, when he opened the letter his late soldier father had written to him before going off to Europe, urging his son to make allies of his fists. Baker would become handy forever after, whether drumming up a storm on such tracks as "The White Room" and "The Sunshine of Your Love", engaging in punch-ups with Cream co-founder Jack Bruce, or shooting up the heroin he claimed made him fearless.

A further sign of this decidedly combative personality can be gleaned from the names of those subsequent projects Baker imposed himself on (Ginger Baker's Airforce, the Baker Gurvitz Army); Cream's third point Eric Clapton - settling very nicely into the role of rock elder statesman - is being diplomatic when he describes his former bandmate as "seriously antisocial", though he concedes Baker had that "gift", the creative spark that separates rock's innovators from its journeymen. A hurricane dressed as Catweazle, Baker did his very best to snuff this gift out, blowing through groupies, wives, bands, bandmates, countries (turning up in Nigeria at the height of its 1970s unrest, cruising for a bruising he could only take on the bearded chin), while scattering his various children to the wind.

What makes Bulger's film so compelling is that it refuses to lionise or make excuses for its subject (hence the cane incident): it clocks that Baker was - is? - difficult and brilliant at the same time, and asks us how much we'd forgive the former for the benefits of the latter. Baker's late 70s/80s comedown is particularly pronounced and depressing - the inevitable taxbills, asking for money he'd long since metabolised, the poor health, the tabloid-baiting flings with friends of his teenage daughter; the dignity-sapping supporting role in 1990's long-forgotten TV show Nasty Boys ("featuring Ginger Baker as Ginger"), the floated (in the most excremental sense) comeback with crusty rock dinosaurs Masters of Reality at the moment grunge was rising up - and you can see why, after that flurry of body blows, even the most hardened of fighters might want to retreat into their own corner.

Crucially, this is a proper film and no mere fanpiece, full of revealing, illuminating archive footage: there's an electric clip of Baker facing off against the great Art Blakey in a "Battle of the Drummers" competition. (Even in his downtime, Baker was looking to test himself.) Animated flourishes do the impossible, getting us into the Baker headspace the first time he was introduced to heroin in the basement of a Soho blues bar: you'd be this pissed-off, if you had African watusi drums pounding in your cranium 24/7. Bulger knows that what ultimately counts, though, is the music and the personality: he senses (correctly) that his subject's dismissals of Jagger, Bonham and Keith Moon make for box-office, but he also allows Baker time to express a more substantial resentment at being written out of Cream's royalty arrangements, one that perhaps explains why he's been scrapping for every penny ever since. The arthritis confines the hurricane to an armchair for much of the duration, and the drumkit sits poignantly untouched in the spare room - but one of rock's most troubled and troubling characters remains as defiant and as furious as ever. Hence, of course, the cane incident.

Beware of Mr. Baker screens at the NFT tomorrow at 9pm, and again on Monday at 1pm.

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