In the beginning of Beware of Mr. Baker, Ginger Baker smacks Jay Bulger in the face with his walking cane, sending blood streaming down the filmmaker’s nose. It’s a fittingly aggressive start to a film that chronicles a life spent hitting things: hitting joints, pummeling his veins with heroin, hitting the dusty road on an improbable musical excursion through the Sahara, even whacking polo balls from the backside of a galloping horse — and, of course, banging out drum beats that transformed rock and roll.
Many people know Ginger Baker as the drummer in Cream, the trio of Baker, Jack Bruce, and Eric Clapton that melded rock, blues, free form jazz, psychedelia, and (thanks to Baker) tribal rhythms into hard-charging masterpieces that have long out-lived the band itself. Fewer people recognize Baker’s standing in the pantheon of drummers — not just in the context of rock and roll but in the history of 20th Century music. As Clapton says at one point in the film: “His musical capabilities are full spectrum. He can write and compose and arrange and has an ear. He is harmonic. He’s a fully formed musician.”
Baker is also a fully unreformed lunatic whom even Keith Richards might be shocked is still alive. Now in his 70s, Baker is a man who still lives harder than most teenagers. In the dusk of a monde-marauding life, he can look back on Cream’s conquest of America (appearing as “giants” to the likes of Carlos Santana), on soul-shaking jam sessions with everyone from Fela Kuti to Art Blakey, on an ungodly amount of sex and drugs, and, if he can bear it, on a long history of fed-up friends and forsaken family members. And thanks to Beware of Mr. Baker, screening at O Cinema Thursday through Sunday, so can you.