It’s certainly a striking image with which to start a documentary when the subject is observed assaulting the documentarian. Ginger Baker, largely touted as the greatest drummer who has ever lived, shouts “I’m gonna put you in the hospital!”, as he smacks director and Rolling Stone journalist Jay Bulger with a stick, which is then sharply, hilariously contrasted with the various names from the music world – John Lydon, Chad Smith etc – who line up to declare his genius, as well as his insanity. Bulger has tracked down the 73-year-old to South Africa, where he proves a cantankerous, embittered, but always compelling subject, shedding some light on why he has become so alienated from the enormous talents he worked with over the years.
Going right back to his childhood during WW2, Baker provides us with a concise summary of the defining facts of his life which would eventually led him to major success as the drummer in Cream. Though Baker clearly relishes the rampant drug use of the period, he decries a perceived lack of royalties on his part – due to a drummer’s share being considerably less than the “songwriter” – claiming that he is now broke, and may have to sell his ranch if things don’t pick up. Hilariously candid about his various misgivings, Baker repeatedly notes his efforts to get clean, as well as his tumultuous relationships – resulting in four marriages – and is also uncommonly honest about the music industry itself, freely picking on the likes of John Bonham and Keith Moon, ignoring typical notions of posthumous respect.
By the time he discusses his trip to Africa to play with Fela Kuti, his late-day polo career, investigation for tax evasion, and part in a film, the doc almost has a Forrest Gump-like feel to it, placing its subject in so many culturally relevant, unexpected contexts, to call him picaresque might be the only apt label. Though through all of his personal foibles we do get to see some latent humanity, Bulger largely sticks to a serio-comic tone, lightly elegiac to a point but also assured that the madman, demonstrated through his climactic violent outburst, is very much alive and well. Though his wives probably won’t agree, the consensus among those who have worked with him is that the results justify his impossible personality, even if most of them never want to work with him again.
A bizarre and irreverent if slightly repetitive portrait of picaresque drum legend Ginger Baker.
This article was first posted on October 14, 2012