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When Bruce Springsteen was looking for a new drummer in 1975, he ran a classified ad that read, “No Junior Ginger Bakers.” It was a testament that Baker’s style was often imitated but never bested. That ad netted Max Weinberg, one of many who laud Baker’s legend in the new documentary “Beware of Mr. Baker.”

Not only was Baker a tremendous drummer, but his offstage drug and alcohol abuse tops the behavior documented in any “Behind the Music” episode ever done. It is a wonder he is still alive, which gives this film dramatic tension throughout.

There is footage of Cream, Blind Faith and other bands, but Baker’s commentary is what makes the film sing. “If you’ve got a problem with me, come and see me and punch me in the nose,” Baker says. “I’m not going to sue you.”

Real violence ensues on several fronts. Baker recounts being shot at by the Nigerian police after playing with Afro-pop star Fela Kuti. He tells many stories of his long-running feud with Cream bassist Jack Bruce.

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“It was really remarkable,” Eric Clapton says, “how bad they didn’t get along.”

Baker’s violence is not always in the past. He punches first-time filmmaker Jay Bulger on camera. At 73, he still draws blood and gives the film’s title true menace.

Baker’s music is cited by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who notes, “If Cream didn’t invent heavy metal, they were part of it.”

Ulrich reminds viewers just how brief Cream’s incendiary career was: “[Cream] were together for a shorter [time] than our last tour.”

Later in life, Baker sets up a series of summits with jazz legends. He cites a Max Roach compliment as his proudest moment, and he seems sincere. He doesn’t seem to sincerely care about his family, however, which he has often left.

One of his ex-wives says, “I don’t know if it is his ability to move on, or his inability to stay.”

That contrast, between offstage disaster and musical success, will make “Beware of Mr. Baker” appeal to even a non-music-freak. Ginger Baker is, and was, a train wreck. Yet this film, like Baker’s onstage playing, is always riveting, and something you can’t look away from.

Charles R. Cross:

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