Beware of Mr. BakerMadman or genius? A new documentary paints a vivid picture of Cream’s Ginger Baker while making a persuasive argument in both directions.

It’s not entirely clear what possessed the former model, boxer, and music video director Jay Bulger to fly to South Africa and begin shooting a documentary by moving in with Ginger Baker, one of the most cantankerous figures in all of music history. And why would Baker even agree to such a thing? After all, a story about his tumultuous life would require him to be forthcoming about drumming, drugs, ex-bandmates, ex-wives, triumphs, and tragedies—to actually behave. Intentions aside, the final product, Beware of Mr. Baker, released by Snag Films in early 2013 and the winner of a Grand Jury Award at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival, is by turns revealing, informative, hilarious, and a bit sad. It paints Baker as a world-class musician and illuminates how his influence as an unrivaled drummer has reached across genres and eras. And fear not: Throughout the film, as throughout his career, Ginger Baker most certainly does not behave. “I can’t imagine what [Baker’s playing] would sound like if he wasn’t who he is,” Bulger tells Modern Drummer.

Baker has been the subject of much analysis since he appeared on the 1960s English R&B scene with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond. In Beware, Ginger says, “It’s a gift from God. You either have it or you haven’t. I’ve got it.” Asked exactly what it is, Baker responds, “Time.” Though he eventually struck gold with Cream, Baker nonetheless regarded himself as a jazz drummer. (Max Roach was an early favorite.) Bulger tells MD that “money” was most likely the factor behind Baker’s changing his focus from jazz to rock. African music was important too, as you can hear in the tom patterns on Cream classics such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room.” After Cream’s breakup, Baker traveled to Nigeria, immersing himself in the culture and collaborating with the king of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, long before Paul Simon exposed the masses to “world” music.

But labels don’t apply here. “I don’t put music in boxes,” Ginger says in the movie. “Especially my music.” Indeed, he has always bristled when Cream is mentioned as originators of heavy metal.

Beware includes sound bites from fellow drumming stars, including Neil Peart, Nick Mason, Simon Kirke, Bill Ward, and Chad Smith, who credit Baker with everything from performing the first rock drum solo to being the very reason they began playing. Praise is universal, as is the acknowledgement that Baker is a difficult chap. “This is the price you pay for musical perfection,” Public Image Ltd’s Johnny Lydon says.

The film’s gold-mine footage includes Baker with Cream, Blind Faith, and Fela, plus fascinating clips of the short-lived Ginger Baker’s Air Force, drum battles with Art Blakey, and later projects Masters of Reality and DJQ20, all of which illustrate the drummer’s expressiveness far better than his heated outbursts do. (Beware’s infamous opening scene shows Baker angrily confronting Bulger about interviewing bandmates he “fled” from, then smacking the director in the face with his cane, breaking his nose.) Bulger uses stylish, impressionistic animation where no early-years footage exists, and there are clips of Baker duetting with his son, Kofi, an accomplished drummer himself.

Ginger BakerDrugs and financial issues are covered as well, though perhaps most depressing are shots of Ginger’s kit set up in a room at his present-day home, dusty from neglect. A concerned Bulger asks Baker if he might have to go back to playing the drums again. Baker’s brazen response: “Why are we talking about this shit?”

“Ginger has always played to pay the bills,” Bulger tells MD, “but he’s never compromised. He’s not going to do one of those rock fantasy camps.” Perhaps it’s just not important to him to keep playing, or maybe years of substance abuse and intense interpersonal relationships have finally taken their toll. “What’s the payoff in being compulsive?” Eric Clapton says in the movie. “I can’t make a diagnosis for Ginger. Rarified situations have allowed me to see certain sides of him. But do I know Ginger? I didn’t take the effort or the risk to become a part of his life for any length of time. I’ve always pulled back when it started to get scary or threatening or difficult.”

But play his drums again Baker does, and the film concludes triumphantly with recent clips of him on stage with a band in front of a packed house, the audience knowing they’re seeing one of the greats. Baker, on the north side of seventy, seems happy to be there and sounds fresh and inspired, unwilling to let go of the music just yet. When you consider the events that unfold in Beware of Mr. Baker, you find it’s an unexpected miracle indeed.