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'Beware of Mr. Baker' review: Bizarre doc captures madness behind the music

Matt Pais, @mattpais

RedEye movie critic

January 31, 2013

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*** (out of four)

Thud! Whack!

In different ways, those sounds summarize the opening of “Beware of Mr. Baker,” which first features the drumming attack of legendary Cream/Blind Faith drummer Ginger Baker—and then shows the now 70-plus Baker outside his South African home, jabbing documentarian Jay Bulger in the nose with a cane.

That’s the brilliant, salty Baker for you, a man who used to look like “Top Chef” alum Spike Mendelsohn on a heroin binge and whose idols of jazz drumming (including Max Roach, Art Blakey and Elvin Jones) eventually became his friends. It’s an achievement of which Baker appears to be much more proud than his four wives and three kids. In fact, Baker’s son Kofi says he thinks his father would have been better off had he never had kids. Baker even told his first wife before marrying her that he’d always choose the drums over her.

In the strange, entertaining “Beware of Mr. Baker,” Bulger blends his discussions with Baker and an ocean of past footage and new interviews. (There are also distracting, animated renderings of some events not caught on film.) That includes performances by Baker’s many groups (he worked with Fela Kuti and played in many bands you probably haven’t heard of) and chats with greats like Neil Peart (Rush), Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones) and Eric Clapton, Baker’s bandmate in Cream and Blind Faith who calls the man some deem “certifiably nuts” merely a “lovable rogue.”

The documentary recalls the Oscar-nominated “Searching for Sugar Man” in telling incredible stories and ultimately leaving its subject as an enigma. Based on Baker’s unwillingness to open up, it’s hard to fault Bulger—who’s wrong in suggesting that a desensitized fence always lingers around musical genius—for not pressing much harder, but he still lets the guy off easy.

The drummer’s life, in which he resented anyone thinking Keith Moon (The Who) or John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) could hold a candle to his skills, unfolds as a sprawling solo of emotionally distant madness. A former drummer myself, I watched “Beware of Mr. Baker” and longed for the time when rock was good, musicians were gods, and good god, the parties and the playing were species of their own.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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