A Life Without Compromise

Thanks to a nasty bug last week, I'm still emptying my South by Southwest notebook. 

A documentary about a musician's fall is sure to be particularly powerful stuff at a festival known largely for launching bands to stardom. Perhaps that's part of what made Beware of Mr. Baker such a favorite at South by Southwest, where it won the coveted Grand Jury Award. The documentary, after all, tells the tale of talented, rakish drummer Ginger Baker, who has finally become old, sitting at home in South Africa, low on cash, short on friends, and far removed from his heyday.

The documentary is in many ways a straightforward, chronological narrative of Baker's life, largely based around interviews with those who have known or been influenced by the drummer. For those of us lacking in a strong background of rock history, the film does an excellent job establishing Baker's unique talent in a context. Jay Bulger, the movie's director and writer, seemed to have found just about every famous drummer in the world, and recorded how Baker influenced their work.

But it's Baker himself who makes the movie, setting the pace of his story with a narration that's sometimes self-aware and other times woefully obtuse. 

We see his violence and anger early; the film begins with Bulger taking a walking stick to the face when Baker discovers other people will be in "his" movie. By 14 he'd received a letter from his father, killed in World War II, telling him "your fists are your friends," advice he clearly took to heart. The drug-use begins early as well, as we see, through animation, Baker getting high on heroin as he listens to records of African drumming. The drummer joins bands only provoke fights with other members, including most famously Jack Bruce. Throughout the film Baker's actions range from simply selfish to overtly cruel, as he recklessly spends money, abandons his family, and moves from one wife to another. 

Throughout, however, Baker's passion for and commitment to his craft is evident. Beginning as a jazz drummer, he's fearless in his pursuits, traveling from one continent to another; playing drum battles against his most revered idols. One of the most interesting part of the movie highlights his years in Nigeria in the 70s, playing with Fela Kuti and founding his own record studio. He helped cultivate the Afrobeat sound—before abandoning the entire venture in the midst of political violence and his own restlessness. The film does of course have some missing voices; for instance there's not one mention of the Beatles or the Yardbirds in the entire movie.

Baker is a captivating character, and watching his life appear to spiral slowly downward as he ages and alienates, is compelling stuff. From his recliner, he fondly remembers his time in Cream, likely his most lucrative and famous endeavor. While he and Jack Bruce have a clear antagonism, Baker and Eric Clapton turn out to have a fascinating relationship. It helps that Clapton has enough self-awareness to articulate some of the complexities. After seeing Baker's moments of violence and cruelty, it's powerful to hear him describe Clapton as a true friend he can count on, while Clapton appears both deeply committed to and deeply ambivalent towards his former band mate. 

During a Q and A, director Jay Bulger says he wanted to tell a story about what it's like to live "a life without compromise." Using animation to depict some of Baker's inner turmoil, Bulger is unflinching in showing both the costs and payoffs to such an approach. He leaves unanswered whether such a life is worth pursuing.

The question hung heavy as we rejoined the throngs of musicians at the festival, many looking to pave their own career without compromise.

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