While lead singers get the attention, guitar heroes are worshipped by players, and bassists tend to be the strong, silent types, it is drummers who are sometimes classic rock’s most eccentric band components. Think Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Ringo Starr.
I recently caught two fine documentaries – each with a completely different approach to its subject – on skin thumpers Ginger Baker and Levon Helm, and both are definitely worth checking out.
Jay Bulger‘s 2012 Beware of Mr. Baker has perhaps the greatest opening of any rock doc ever – the subject beating the director bloody with his cane while screaming epithets as the latter tries to frantically drive away.
It’s just the first of many amazing vignettes of Baker – best known for his stint with Cream – that Bulger captures in contemporary interviews at Baker’s African home and with plenty of archival footage.
“A motherfucker,” “certifiably nuts,” “looked like the Devil,” “virtuoso madman,” and “surprised he’s still living” are just some of the comments bandied about Baker – and these are by his musical admirers .
Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood, Nick Mason, Mickey Hart, Lars Ulrich, Neil Peart, and Carlos Santana are just some of the names who wax on the red-haired psycho, but no interviewee is more entertaining than Baker himself, as he traces his life in music, drugs, women, tax exile, bankruptcies, divorces, world travels, and obsessions with horses and polo.
Throughout, Bulger (who at first lies and tells Baker he’s on assignment for Rolling Stone) acts as a guide for his irascible, irksome, and indignant subject, who spends much of the film reclined in a puffy chair that threatens to swallow him as he smokes and drinks coffee endlessly.
Hilarious animation throughout the film also illustrate some of Baker’s wilder tales and reminisces (some of which come from ex-wives and children he abandoned).
That’s not to say Beware of Mr. Baker is all bizarre and eccentric show. Bulger takes pains to show how talented a drummer Baker truly is, even while he dismisses many of his fellow rockers as pounders without the talent to pull off Baker’s runs, heavily influenced by jazz.
But it’s clear that Baker’s views of himself and his relationships with others aren’t always in sync. He calls ex-bandmate Clapton “my best friend in the world.” Cut to a bemused Clapton pondering to Bulger “Do I really even know him?”
By film’s end, it all comes back around. Baker is shown with his much younger, African fourth wife and her children (looking more like wide-eyed hostages than a happy family). And, later, his beating of Bulger, who dared mention that he wanted to talk to others in Baker’s circle for the film. This sends the drummer into an angry frenzy.
Beware of Mr. Baker is unlike any other rock doc I’ve ever seen, and insanely wild ride.
Of more bucolic, gutsy, and melancholic nature is Ain’t In It For My Health, Jacob Hatley‘s 2010 look at the last years in the life of The Band drummer/singer Levon Helm, who died of cancer two years later.
Some if it is tough to watch as Helm – once such a physical force – is beset by a variety of health issues. This includes throat cancer, as he struggles to gig one-nighters under decidedly lower-rent circumstances then when The Band was playing stadiums.
Eventually, Helm falls upon the idea to have audiences comes to him, hosting star-studded and informal “Midnight Rambles” as this Woodstock home’s sizable barn.
He also gets more recognition toward the end both for his work with the fractious Band (though, in portions detailing group history, he never forgives Robbie Robertson for purported song credit hogging), and his own latter records, including the critically-acclaimed Dirt Farmer.
“Everyone wants to live a long time, but it’s how you live that matters,” a painfully-thin Helm reflects in one of many interview segments held at his ramshackle dining room table amidst family and friends like Billy Bob Thornton and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. And he’s not above lighting up joints even though throat cancer is ravaging him. His theory – why not enjoy life while you can, before it’s too late?
Helm’s daughter Amy – herself an accomplished singer and instrumentalist, calls her father’s journey “a different kind of survival story.” And it’s one that only a classic rock giant could go through.
And though the wild-eyed, erratic Englishman Baker and the drawling, earth-solid Arkansan couldn’t be more different in temperament, attitude, and musical leanings, both of these documentaries showcase the ups and downs of classic rock lives led to the hilt.