‘Beware of Mr. Baker’ paints brutal portrait of rockstar lifestyle

The new documentary, “Beware of Mr. Baker,” makes a fair case for why Ginger Baker is the ultimate rock drummer. While not as famous by name as Ringo Starr, Keith Moon or John Bonham, Baker’s powerful, multi-rhythmic drumming and hedonistic behavior in the bands Cream and Blind Faith formed an archetype that Moon and Bonham followed to their deaths. But Baker, against all odds, is still alive, albeit alone on a South African plantation, his hands weakened by degenerative osteoarthritis, receiving no royalties for hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” or “White Room.” The story of his life is a journey to that plantation, and the classical rise and fall of life forms the structure of “Mr. Baker.”

Most rockumentaries are reverent, mythmaking affairs, but “Mr. Baker” starts with its subject slamming a crutch into director Jay Bulger’s nose. “Mr. Baker” sweeps viewers into the tailspin of one of rock’s famous wild men who lived a bizarre life. Through archival footage, talking heads and some scratchy animated sequences, the picture of an influential — if publicly under-appreciated — artist is painted. Trained as a jazz drummer, Baker gained fame along with bassist Jack Bruce and guitarist Eric Clapton in Cream, one of the first supergroups and a flagship band of blues and psychedelia. Even though his complex rhythms and energetic drum solos received huge acclaim, his volatile personality led to the dissolution of Cream and his other musical acts.

Baker appears less than thrilled about how the public has treated him. Through the interview footage that is the core of “Mr. Baker,” Baker reveals a delightfully acerbic personality. Sarcastically humorous and gleefully unapologetic, he boasts of his perfection in staying on beat, muses inspirations like musician Max Roach and shows ambivalence about the music industry and his own influence. When told how Cream’s legacy gave birth to heavy metal genre, Baker responds that the genre as a whole should not have continued.

Through it all, Bulger’s portrait is sympathetic and admiring, but not blindly so. The movie doesn’t shy away from the worst aspects of Baker’s personality, even when he justifies or jokes about his flaws. Baker chose drumming instead of his ex-wife and ignored and neglected his son, but these crucial individuals receive equal time in the spotlight to reveal their own experiences with Baker — even some who abandoned the title character. Baker ultimately emerges as a tragic figure whose own recklessness squandered his potential. “Beware of Mr. Baker” is a rich portrait of an artist who changed the face of rock, and an evocative cautionary tale about the dangers of excess and selfishness.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 28 print edition. J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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