Ginger Baker, who rose to fame as the wild man drummer of the 60’s British rock super group Cream, is still alive and kicking, sometimes literally. Defined by some as a rock ‘n’ roll monster, Baker’s story is brought to the screen in Beware of Mr. Baker, a fascinating documentary written and directed by Jay Bulger, who spent three months living with Baker at his home in Africa.
Baker is brutally honest in the film, which is intercut with interviews with dozens of rock and jazz legends, as well as Baker’s four wives and three children. The film recently received the top documentary prize at South by Southwest.
Beware of Mr. Baker is screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival at the Regal Theater Friday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. and Saturday, Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m. Bulger is expected to be present at both screenings. The film is being released by Snag Films on January 25.
Here, Bulger shares what it was like getting to know the legendary musician.
Beware of Mr. Baker offers an honest and intimate portrait of Ginger Baker, a complicated and conflicted man. How did you end up living with him at his home in Africa? When the cameras weren’t rolling, what was your day to day existence like?
I went there blindly. I ingratiated myself. I became good friends with his manager and the local community and when Ginger would ask me when I was leaving, I would say, 'I don’t think I’m going to.' I was persistent enough that he just gave up and he just kind of accepted that I lived there. I thought it was just awesome. This was like the most unlikely terrifying guy and there was a table setting for me every night for dinner. That was pretty cool. He would be like, “Jay, (expletive) dinner’s ready.” It wasn’t like he ignored me, he fed me!
In the morning, he went horseback riding with his polo team and they did laps around his massive property and he watched TV. We would have lunch in town, come home, and he would watch TV. There was a lot of television watching and horseback riding. He’s really into the History Channel, watching stuff about WWII. We talked about everything - parents, fathers, how his dad left, went off to war and died. Most of the stuff ended up in the film. He was open to talking. He was constantly entertaining. He likes telling stories to people he’s comfortable with. He’s a good story teller and he’s highly intelligent.
Your film begins with Mr. Baker whacking you on your nose with his cane. This happened after you had spent a considerable amount of time living with him. Even though you knew of his abrasive nature, were you taken aback by that sudden stroke of violence against you?
There was 20 minutes of yelling and then he apologized and police came. I didn’t press charges. I just wanted an apology. That was all I wanted. And I got it. We talked on the phone the next day like nothing happened. We moved on. We talk still.
But I was confused and emotional and I think the rest of the film reflected my trying to figure out what that was about. I had to figure out what happened there. The movie really was an exploration of a person who does that kind of thing to people… leaving things in a flame as opposed to being vulnerable.
Even if he’s humorous, he can be quite abrasive. I’ve been boxing since I was eight years old and I come from a long lineage of tough Irish people, people emotionally questionable. He reminds me of both my grandfathers who were quite similar to him. So I relate to that and I understand and I’m comfortable in the presence of someone who is kind of callous and ornery and petulant at times. He’s hard to get to know, but that’s why the payoff is so great for actually getting in there because when he exposed himself, it revealed such a deeper well than someone who’s in touch with those vulnerabilities. He keeps you on your toes. It’s a bizarre balance of relationship.
Was there a particular incident or moment when you realized you were in the midst of someone who offered a truly one-of-a-kind story.
There’s this mythical buildup about him. It’s interesting because I think if he hadn’t been so mythically terrifying, people might have made the movie already. Maybe he would have been able to do the movie with someone else. For me, I thought that was what was most attractive about him, like Grendel in Beowulf. Maybe I fantasized being Marlow from the Heart of Darkness or something. I just thought it was amazing how people described him like a murderer or flesh eating killer. It was to the point where when people described him like that, so extremely out of control, I thought, okay he’s probably not like that at all.
When I called him, lo and behold we started talking. I asked if I could live with him. I think that was the moment when I thought, I don’t think this guy is letting me live with him because he’s trying to get something out of me. I think maybe in the back of his mind he knows how good a story he is and he’s kind of like okay, cool, maybe this guy can tell it.
The long list of musicians you interviewed for the film is incredible, everyone from Eric Clapton to Charlie Watts to Johnny Rotten. It’s interesting that even though many of them have distanced themselves from him, they still seem to have respect for him and were willing to be interviewed.
The people he played music with on stage… when he’s on stage, he’s not hitting people with a cane, and he’s genuinely generous, and giving and selfless. He does whatever it takes to serve the music. He’s not a soloist. He doesn’t lead the band. He pushes people to their utmost heights. I think Eric Clapton is a great example of that. I think Eric never fully recovered from the music that he played with Jack (Bruce) and Ginger in Cream – as far as virtuosity goes, as far as expressing himself as an individual. I don’t think he ever did that again, and you have to hand that to Ginger and Jack. That’s what he does. He gets up on stage and makes people sound better.
I think he expresses himself musically and his musical expression is incredibly dynamic. I think he’s able to express himself with music in ways that he can’t as a person. That’s why he’s as good as he is in music and he’s chosen to do that. He is one of a kind. He’s completely unique with his instrument which most people cannot say.
I think people understand if he was a little lighter in his loafers, he might not be playing the music that he plays in the way that he does. As a result I think people give him a bit of a pass.
What was Ginger Baker’s reaction to the film? And what did you learn through the process and experience of getting to know Mr. Baker and making the film?
He really likes the movie. He’s very aware of his own imperfections and faults and mistakes and he’s not afraid to express them. He’s honest. He can dish it out and he can take as much as he can dish out.
He gave me an 85% rating. He took 10% off because I put Jack Bruce’s side of the knife fight story in. He told me from the beginning, Jack is going to tell you I pulled a knife on him and it’s not true so don’t put it in, but I did. And he deducted another five points because he thought the animation was too dark.
I learned most importantly that when you spend so much time with someone like that, it inevitably rubs off on you. Before you know it, you’re acting like there are no rules and like there are no repercussions for mistreating your body, like you’re invincible. Because he really is invincible in ways that scientifically can’t be explained. I don’t think anyone can explain how he can live this long. I mean, he still smokes five packs of cigarettes a day.
I quickly, well not quickly, but over time, I realized there’s only one him, Ginger Baker, and we mortals are unfortunately just that, mortal. Only certain people can treat themselves like that and get away with the things they do. The life of an outlaw is only a life for a select few people.
Secondly, I learned that the price of genius is a costly one and one for which we are able to reap the rewards. We get to listen to the music and we don’t have to suffer. So who are we to judge his decisions when we are sitting there and listening to the music created as a result of those decisions.
If people say “what a jerk” about Ginger after watching the film, then I failed. I wanted to make a movie where people won’t hate him or love him, but understand him and the decisions he made. He’s such an interesting character. I’m just further and further impressed by how totally insane and then lucid the guy is. And so unpredictable! He makes me so furious and at other times makes me laugh. I’m always on my feet with him. He’s never the same.