When influential bassist Jack Bruce died Saturday at the age of 71, the official word from longtime bandmate, notorious wild man and iconic percussionist Ginger Baker was: “I am very sad to learn of the loss of a fine man, Jack Bruce… My thoughts & wishes are with his family at this difficult time.”
But based on the riveting—and occasionally mortifying—documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, I couldn’t help but wonder if the 75-year-old Baker feels some vindication at having outlived Bruce, whom Baker believes pocketed an unfair share of Cream’s shake and with whom Baker long had a turbulent relationship, dating back to their days in the Graham Bond Organisation.
Beware of Mr. Baker demonstrates that Baker pulls no figurative or literal punches; the opening shows him bloodying director Jay Bulger with a cane. It also depicts Baker as respectful, even reverential, of musicians he admires; he chokes up when he discusses his relationships with jazz idols Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Art Blakey.
Although Baker is best known for his work in the 1960s supergroups Cream and Blind Faith, he was not just a time-keeping rock drummer. Through archival footage, animation and interviews with the likes of Eric Clapton (who played alongside Baker in both of the aforementioned bands), Bulger presents Baker as an instinctual, almost savant-like musician whose affection for and knowledge of jazz and African music spilled into his own playing and separated him from contemporaries such as John Bonham and Keith Moon.
“If they were alive, ask them,” the blunt Baker growls at one point. “They’d tell you I was better.”
Bulger, who previously wrote the excellent Rolling Stone article “The Devil and Ginger Baker,” also lingers on the globe-spanning wreckage Baker left in his wake. The drummer’s microscopic focus on music and frequent spirals into drug addiction were elemental in the erosion of three marriages and fractured relationships with his three children, and his hair-trigger temper and confrontational personality were factors in the breakup of even more bands.
Though the cantankerous Baker—who speaks in eruptions, drops F-bombs with militaristic overkill and seemingly subsists on cigarettes—makes a compelling documentary character, it’s his music that makes him a worthwhile subject. His influence spans several generations and genres, and his best music sounds even more vital with the passage of time.
Time is big to Baker. He attributes his talent to “natural time,” and he explains that the primary reason he was able to collaborate with Bruce so often despite their hostility toward one another was the bassist’s exceptional sense of timing. Beware of Mr. Baker may not possess the heart-warming vibe of 2012’s other notable music documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, but it does give one the sense that Baker has largely made the most of his time, and when it comes to music and living few have been able to keep up.