Beware of Mr Baker

Sophie Monks Kaufman

"Labour of love" is a done to death way of describing things. Jay Bulger’s labour is one of rabid curiosity. Not content with posing as a Rolling Stone writer to gain access to Mr. Baker’s fortified South African hideout, the American journalist who jammily got the resulting profile published in… Rolling Stone, has returned to his muse to make a feature documentary.

Beware of Mr. Baker, his first foray into directing, is a far-reaching exposé of the feral force that is drumming hellraiser Ginger Baker. Personal attachment breeds a sometimes imbalanced but impressively deep character study that invites viewers to consider a man who’s every word and deed is as unmistakable as whiplash.

Bulger’s own technique is loosely chronological. He can’t resist launching with a contemporary and enraged Ginger attacking him with a stick yet soon after that we’re introduced to the 4-year-old Ginger whose father died in WWII. With assurance and gusto, the story zig-zags forwards and backwards from the subject’s scrappy adolescence and glut of musical collaborations to the present where 70-something-year-old Ginger, flame tresses now faded to white strawberry blonde, snarls and swears, even as his legs shake involuntarily and he gasps morphine from a mask. In a heartbreaking moment Bulger asks him to remove ever-present sunglasses and the eyes that glare out pulse with anguish.

Ginger Baker.

Whether talent negates a ‘difficult’ character is a question that Baker’s very existence, like a long list including Hitchcock and Kubrick, poses. Bulger has summoned an impressive line-up to weigh in from Ginger’s punk cheerleader Johnny Rotten to a more circumspect Eric Clapton to three shell-shocked yet plucky ex-wives and abandoned children. “He should never have had kids,” says his youngest, Kofi, matter-of-factly.

Yet point-of-view belongs not to them but to the besotted director whose reverence comes through in animated segments. David Bell and Joe Scarpulla’s charcoaled Ginger bashes away with divine grace and timing surrounded by African soulmates; a bobbing ship charts his frequent travels, zipping round a pirate-style map of the world. Both mythologise a fractured life and, supplemented by rich footage of Ginger at the top of his game, the effect is a fanboy’s professionally researched, all-seeing tribute to a raw, singular man.

Forming psychological theories of cause and effect is not the camera’s concern. Ginger is presented as a force of nature, to be swept up in or avoided according to individual hardiness. Hints at specific issues come out in his preference for animals over humans. "They know who I am," he mutters, like Timothy Treadwell finding refuge in bears (Grizzly Man) and Buck Brannaman in horses (Buck). But before the brain can wonder about daddy issues we’re back watching him threatening to put the filmmaker in hospital. Bulger has his own pat conclusion with which to draw the curtains but in this microcosm is a chance to ask a boiled down version of an earlier question. How much would you suffer at the hands of your heroes.

Follow Sophie on Twitter: @sopharsogood

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