Sunday, November 25, 2012

The best musical doc since "Sugar Man" -- Jay Bulger's jolting BEWARE OF MR. BAKER

This year has been a banner one for documentaries: So many good-to-great films are there, originals and hybrids, that I cannot imagine the difficulty, come "Oscar" time, in choosing a shortlist. Now, to have among these, two new musical-themed docs as different -- and as remarkably well-done -- as Searching for Sugar Man and BEWARE OF MR. BAKER is surely a blessing of sorts.

You could hardly ask for two "leading men" as different as Sixto Rodriguez and Ginger Baker, the musical stars featured in these films: one a hero in so many ways, the other -- the titular Mr. Baker -- well, you'll have to see it to believe it. Ginger (shown at right) is pretty much every negative cliché you've heard concerning nasty, thoughtless, drug-addled rock musicians rolled into one. Except that he possesses, as the movie makes clear, incredible, innate talent as one of the greatest jazz & rock drummers who has ever lived. Couple this to his character, and you have one crazy, crass, complicated guy -- whom writer/director Jay Bulger (shown below) has captured with surprising finesse for a first-time filmmaker.

Mr. Bulger has balls, that's for sure. We learn this almost immediately as he tells us that his first contact with Baker came when the younger man pretended to be a writer for Rolling Stone magazine who then conned an interview with the drummer, charmed him into telling, if not all, then quite a bit, and went on to actually have his article published by Rolling Stone. In addition to those cojones, Bulger has looks, charm and most important, talent. He captures Ginger as fully as one would think possible within the movie's 92-minute time frame.

Using a fine array of historical footage, the filmmaker compiles a history of Mr. Baker that includes three generations of family, a musical history of drumming, from which we learn who the man's mentors were; whom Baker considers to be among history's better drummers; the state of his wives and children; his struggles with addictions of various sorts; and his ultra-surly, borderline-crazy disposition and behavior.

Though Bulger bounces back and forth in time and goes from live-action to artful animation (above), he never loses us nor the thread of his story. He appears to have an innate sense of what goes where, and why, and for how long, so his movie moves speedily ahead and is flat-out fascinating for its entire length. (I am no fan of the kind of music that Baker has been involved in -- Cream, Blind Faith -- and yet the film held me completely; I should think that, for fans of this fellow and his drumming, it would prove unmissable.)

For all the music we see and hear, Bulger does not stint on personal history and psychology, and so we get an unusually rich, rounded picture of this man, his career, and those closest to him -- family members and other musicians -- from one of those great drummers, Phil Seamen, to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts and a certain Mr. Rotten (above). Each has his specific "take" on the man or on music, and the real beauty of this movie is how Bulger has assembled all this to create a full and indelible character.

Baker is most often, it seems, a monster, and a talented one. Yet the movie makes it difficult to hate the guy (how he treats his own son will bring you closest to hatred). It seems most likely that psychological help was called for early on -- certainly later on! -- but by then Baker was old enough and rich enough to reject it. Bi-polar doesn't begin to define the swing of his moods (nor his finances), one of which begins the movie, the consequences of which are seen at the finale. (That sign in Ginger's yard in South Africa, shown at the top of this post, is there for good reason.)

Among the many surprises (to me, at least) is Baker's interest in the sport of polo (those are his ponies, above) and his connection to the famous African musician Fela. Concerning the latter, as usual, when the going gets tough, Baker quickly hightails it out of danger. Another point that Bulger's movie makes, perhaps unintentionally, concerns the relationship between art and destruction. We more often, I think, join art with creation, but Mr. Baker generally has it otherwise.

Still, toward the end of this rather amazing movie, Baker tells Bulger, "This was music you couldn't put in a box, Jay!"  Ginger Baker, to his everlasting credit and shame, is equally un-boxable. This movie about him, from SnagFilms, opens on Wednesday, November 28, for a two-week run at New York's Film Forum.

Elsewhere? Here's what we've learned so far: The film will open at the Sundance Sunset in the Los Angeles area on November 30 and play at least through Dec. 6 -- followed by openings in eight additional cities (via Abramorama) in the weeks to come. Look for it on Cable & Satellite VOD via Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon Fios, Cox, Charter, AT&T, DISH and DirecTV from 2/26/2013 to 04/22/2013, and then to Broadband Digital via Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, V.dio and Xbox beginning February 26, 2013.

Special note: filmmaker Jay Bulger (above, right)
will appear at Film Forum in person this Wednesday, 
November 28, at the 8:20 screening!
And Ginger? Don't think we'll be seeing him. After all,
we don't want fist fights and broken furniture to harm
New York's favorite repertory cinema....

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