SXSW Film Review – Beware of Mr. Baker
I’m a self-professed documentary film fan, but I will admit I failed a bit when I was at SXSW. Of all the movies I saw, only one of them was a documentary. Luckily, I happened to choose the one that won the Grand Jury prize for documentary film: Beware of Mr. Baker.
The film is a documentary about Ginger Baker, one of the world’s greatest drummers, who was a member of bands such as Cream and Blind Faith and helped define rock ‘n roll drumming. He is ornery, erratic, a hard-partier, and self-destructive. As his story is told it cuts between two timelines. The first is in the present, where director Jay Bulger attempts to get to know Ginger Baker at his home, and the second is an extensive look back on the history of Baker’s career, to explain how he ended up broke in South Africa married to his latest in a series of wives.
There are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind with this film. Firstly, the director Jay Bulger is a first-time director. The whole project started out of his desire to meet Baker, and Bulger led him to believe that he was going to write an article for Rolling Stone Magazine (while a fictional claim at the start of his trip, this ultimately did come true). Secondly, while Baker is still alive, he is probably the least insightful interview subject on his history and career, as he is very reluctant to look back at them.
Heading into the screening, I felt that the bar had been set pretty high for music documentaries, and includes films like the Academy Award-nominated Buena Vista Social Club, and one of my personal favorites of all documentaries, Dig!. It might be a bit unfair to Bulger to compare him to directors such as Wim Wenders and Ondi Timoner at this point in his career, but he does an excellent job constructing the film—all the important beats of a good documentary are there. There are interviews with Baker, his ex-wives, his kids, former band members, drummers, and other musicians who respect his legacy…basically anyone you can imagine is interviewed during the movie—and yes, that does include Eric Clapton, which I was wondering about after reading the film’s description. There is an amazing amount of archival footage that has been dug up so as to show Baker during his heyday, as well as some entertaining transitions to move the film along.
I must admit I had never heard of Ginger Baker heading into the movie. I was familiar with Cream, but basically all I knew was a few of their songs and that Eric Clapton was in the band. Likewise, my knowledge of the history of drumming was limited to knowing about people like Keith Moon, who had gained fame for more than just their drumming. If you are like me and head into the movie with a similar background, this is going to be information overload for you. Baker’s career is extensive and Bulger does an exhaustive job chronicling everything he has done. If one thing is taken away from the movie, it is the immense amount of music history that is distilled here. I could foresee this film having a legacy outside of the DVD market and being used during classes in schools as an educational tool.
As a production, the film is solid—especially for a first-time director—and has received a lot of critical acclaim. Yet somehow it left me a little cold. I found Baker to be a fascinating character and I would’ve liked more time spent in the present getting to know him. Also, to me, the best documentaries are the ones where I feel I know the subject afterwards, and here I mostly just feel like I know about him…like I’ve just completed Ginger Baker 101. I felt the film was too focused on his music career and didn’t present a clear picture of him as a person, and I would use the expression that “less is more” sometimes. Listening to his Q&A after the film screening, Bulger talked about subjects that weren’t even really referenced during the movie, like how Baker was a professional racer, which I found really fascinating. Some of the best points were discussing things I couldn’t find during a simple Google search, like his obsession with polo. That is the kind of stuff I wanted to see—the stuff that you can’t pick up from a resume.
I realize I’m probably not the target market for this movie and I appreciate that the production was solid. I just felt like they left a lot of material on the cutting room floor, but maybe they wanted to save something for a Beware of Mr. Baker 2. If they make it, I’ll be there to check it out.
Final Grade: B