This portrait of iconic '60s stickman Ginger Baker fails to separate the man from the legend.
When magazine scribe and former model Jay Bulger visited legendary drummer Ginger Baker's home in South Africa, he found a septuagenarian deep in a Barcalounger. The globe-trotting, genre-crossing rock'n'roller’s mystique, then, is conveyed through his snarled responses to Bulger’s questions: "How I restrain myself from throwing heavy things at you, Jay, I don’t know." "Stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead." "Good god, I’m talking to a block of moronic wood."
Bulger seems to relish the abuse. His documentary opens on Baker bashing him with his cane, which he’s cool with, after some initial sweary indignation. "The madman is alive and well!" the first-time filmmaker exclaims to the camera, nose still bloodied, either elated about getting a killer scene or having convinced himself that he’s passed some kind of badass hazing ritual.
The genesis of the film, Bulger tells us, was his discovery of Baker via a DVD his friend showed him. (Rarely does a non-fiction filmmaker’s first-person account of what drew him to his subject convey the same allure to the viewer.) So he wrangled an invitation with no clear plan except to wring out some anecdotes, or at least attitude. Good documentaries have, after all, been made with less justification.
Baker’s life and career are equally marked by a soloist’s mentality: an unruly childhood altered by the discovery of Max Roach, African percussion and heroin; peak musicianship with Cream (finicky Jack Bruce and apologetically pretentious Eric Clapton make foils as fascinating in interviews as on record); indulgences musical and otherwise; jam sessions in Nigeria with Fela Kuti; the dying fall of sporadic unsatisfying paying gigs and marriages; burned bridges and the wages of excess. All that, plus an extremely incongruous long-standing polo hobby. (Baker blew his entire cheque from Cream’s 2005 reunion shows on horses, imperiling his financial security.)
Despite the talking-head testimonials from prog, metal and jam-band musicians claiming Baker as a seminal influence on prog, metal and jam bands, the film emphasises Baker’s jazz chops. He claims to be self-taught, blessed with "perfect time" and, in career-spanning performance clips, he attacks the kit with technique and abandon, wailing away in complex time signatures, shaking his wild orange-red hair and beard. "The loudest drummer I’d ever heard," an ex-bandmate recalls.
Mugging for the camera in archival photos, Baker looks demonic, with skeletal strung-out grin and bug eyes. But Bulger’s presentation of "the madman" does seem wide of the point, which is partly because he also allows his subject a certain savantish poignancy. His children, especially son Kofi, are objective if not entirely forgiving about his failings as a father, with one epic falling-out coming after Ginger derides his son’s drumming abilities.
Baker has few reminiscences of his own dad, a World War Two casualty, but tears up over memories of playing alongside his musical fathers. When remembering the people he’s respected in his life, he invariably describes them as having "great time."
Ginger Baker —wasn’t he the inspiration for Animal from The Muppets?
A clumsily infatuated director gets in the way, but Baker’s trajectory is a fascinatingly unique spin on the ’60s rock star arc.
An interesting character study interspersed with classic rock, jazz and Afrobeat clips. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.