Although he was a member of Cream, has played with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, and lived a life of debauchery that's the stuff of rock 'n' roll legend, Ginger Baker is often forgotten when people talk about rock's greatest drummers. Director Jay Bulger's new documentary, “Beware of Mr. Baker,” could change that, highlighting the brilliance, belligerence, and lasting influence of the British musician. The filmmaker (who has also had turns as a Golden Gloves boxer, model, and journalist) started working on a story about the mercurial drummer four years ago for Rolling Stone. Realizing that the story couldn't be confined to the page, Bulger transformed it into a full-length documentary. The film, which was named top documentary at this year's SXSW Film Festival, attempts to tell the story of Baker's life, not just his career, shining a light on a man whose inability to compromise often brought both fear and inspiration into the lives of the few people close to him. ARTINFO recently sat down with the director to talk about living with Baker, the pursuit of perfection at all costs, and getting your nose broken by your subject.
ARTINFO: When did you start working on the film?
Jay Bulger: It's been four and a half years. It started with me watching a documentary about him driving across the Sahara Desert. I watched it with my friend who's a drummer. He told me [Baker] drove across the Sahara to get off heroin. First he tried to do it with a Ferrari, but failed. The Ferrari goes off some cliff when he saw some chick ,and he was like, “Oh I need a better car to do this.” I just thought that was so outrageous. It was that pursuit of his passion that really blew me away.
Early in the film, he talks about the importance of hearing African drum records for the first time when he met the jazz drummer Phil Seaman.
I think that's when he got enslaved. In Danish, the word for addiction is slavery. It was like, heroin and rhythm, this is where he enters the shit. Along the way, more and more, these incarnations take over, leaving everything, family, fame, and fortune behind, as he goes on this path towards destruction, but also musical innovation.
How much time did you spend with him?
Three months. Living with him was fucking crazy. He'd kick in my door down and be like, “You have to move!” And I'd say, “I'm not going anywhere.” And he'd say, “Fucking, oh God, alright then.” It took a bully to stand up to the bully, I think. But you know, I respect him highly and find him super intimidating at times. I just sat back and let him be him. It's not about me. He never asked me a single question. He probably doesn't know anything about me.
When did you know you wanted to turn this into a movie?
I wanted to the whole time. I was shooting a documentary there, but eventually he was like, “When is this Rolling Stone article coming out? You've been here for months.” But it took so long to get it published. I had to wait for the article to come out, and when it did, I cut a promo of what I shot, and it took a long time to raise the money to do it because it was about a drummer.
Throughout the film, and his life, it seems like every time things are going well, he finds a way to destroy it all.
He's [an] anarchist! His foot just starts tapping, his foot is tapping in life, it's not like he has Parkinson's. He just can't stop playing his fucking drums. Drummers are inherently destructive. They're the most physical of musicians. He smashes things. He's a walking contradiction. With his right hand he's building an animal hospital, with his left foot he's kicking me in the face. The thing that's pissed me off a lot is when people watch the movie, and they define the movie based on whether they want him to be their father. It's like, get over it.
When Ginger is in Colorado, and things are finally going well, you can just sense that he's going to mess it all up.
In Colorado, things are finally coming together. He's got his son, he's got his wife. He fucks it all away. I think he didn't have a childhood as a result of becoming a musician so early. I think he turned pro when he was 14 or 15. So he never really had a childhood and as a result of his genius, no one ever told him no. He's predisposed to getting whatever the fuck he wants.
With him having burned all these bridges, was it hard getting people to talk about him?
Well, you know that was the thing, the contradictory nature of people loving and hating him. No one hates him enough that they didn't want to talk about him. But like everyone, Eric [Clapton] and these people, they have been deeply affected by his presence in their lives.
Clapton seems almost scared to talk about him?
Clapton and I shared a moment there. I think I opened up some floodgates of the past that maybe he had shut off. You know, he's done like years of therapy. He, like Ginger, didn't really have a childhood, but later in life, with the death of his son and getting off the drugs, he had time to deal with those demons that Ginger has never confronted and continually run away from.
What was your relationship like with him?
I was traumatized at times, creatively inspired, and constantly questioning my own infatuation with this person who was less than loveable in return. I think he reminded me of my dad. It had so much potential for being a dark unlikeable unredeemable character, and as a result, it made it that much more of a challenging film to make. Fuck, it was so difficult to interview him. To continue working on something where the person in return tells you you're a piece of shit, it becomes taxing. You question why are you doing this, but for that same reason the guy is unbelievably captivating. So many times, especially after he broke my nose with the cane, but you know, I went in there and I got him to apologize to me.
I love that: you're in his house yelling at him, “Say you're sorry!” And he's like, “No!”
That was the most gratifying experience of the process. I felt like through petulancy I was able to gain his respect as a human. I think it's the people who have stuck up to him, who he has related the most to, and that's what it took to make the movie. You know, there's nothing you can do to me that hasn't been done before, there's nothing you can say. I had fucking cancer. I've just been through the muck at times, so I think it conditioned me to be emotionally callus enough to persevere and go forward with something that people can look at as a character study and as a warning to all those who may consider living a life without compromise. You end up at the end of the world with a huge gate, living with a 28-year-old internet bride. People aren't picking up the phone when you call, and you're out of money, and potentially lonely. But that's the life that he's set up for himself, and he hasn't compromised one bit. And that's why the music sounds the way it does.
What's happened to Ginger since you finished filming?
At first I was pissed, but then I realized he's still got that fire. When he took off his glasses, he was defeated, that was indicative of my entire last chapter of making the movie with him. I was like, “Dude, what the fuck man? Get your shit together. You're Ginger Baker. What is this self wallowing misery? I'm not making a fucking movie about the defeated man. I'm making a movie about the dude who cannot be killed.” So when he broke my nose with the cane, there was that aspect of, “Yeah, he's fucking back, there will be a sequel. The devil's alive and well.” He's not a man to be fucked with. He's back and he's playing again, and there's a fire up his ass, because he's got to make another fortune to blow. He's got to create a whole new genre of music.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” is playing at Film Forum through next Tuesday.
This interview has been edited and condensed.