When I asked bassist Jack Bruce last year if he was jealous that Eric Clapton gets the credit for the hits he wrote for Cream (including "White Room" and "I Feel Free"), he said no: "He might get the credit, but I get the cash."
Runs Fri., March 1-Thurs., March 7 at Grand Illusion. Not rated. 92 minutes.
Ginger Baker, the drummer who put Cream together, got neither—even though, if you believe his testimony here, he pulled the levers that made the band great. "Cream was my thing," he tells director Jay Bulger. "It did exactly what I told it to do. Only I lost out on it. I'm fucking broke right now."
Respectful and appreciative, Beware of Mr. Baker is, mercifully, never fawning—which cannot be said of the drummers who line up to pay their respects. Rush's Neil Peart is here; so is the Stones' Charlie Watts; and Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica) drop in for chats to accomplish the film's first order of business: to establish Baker as a maniac who helped create the template for the rock-and-roll drummer.
The second is to reveal Baker as an unreasonable human being with a long history of drug, social, familial, and financial problems. No less a source than the Sex Pistols' John Lydon says, "I know what my life's experiences are, and I like to exemplify them in music. Mr. Baker does the same. If that makes him an unpleasant person socially—well, that's required for the music from him to be so superb." Baker was living as a semi-recluse in South Africa when Bulger interviewed him.
Beware of Mr. Baker also successfully conveys Baker's abilities as an arranger and bandleader—which Clapton and Carlos Santana were happy to build upon. The doc also depicts Cream as a pop-up band that, as Ulrich points out, was together for less time (1966–68) than Metallica spent promoting its last album. "We had no responsibility," says Clapton, "other than to that moment in time." Consequently, the band spent little time analyzing itself—it helped that there was little or no precedent for Cream's music—but simply blazingly engaged itself with the psychedelic era. Is that music now dated? Sure. But Beware of Mr. Baker makes this look like a success.
As Clapton observed, the band had no interest in doing anything other than what it wanted to do right then and there. And the result is a small, brilliant catalogue that could not have been made at any other time. With music today so nostalgic and derivative, Beware of Mr. Baker is a reminder of what rock and roll was like when it had fewer ideas about what it should be.