Two stars guide the frenzied new documentary “Beware Of Mr. Baker." The first is Ginger Baker, aka Mr. Baker, former drummer for Cream whom the movie persuasively defends as both a madman and the greatest drummer of the 21st century. The other character who’s bound to make an impression is the movie’s 30-year-old director, Jay Bulger, a one-time boxer, model, and Rihanna analyst with enough manic energy in him to coax an ornery rock god, long vanished into the South African desert, to open up -- even if it means getting punched in the nose by said rock god in the movie’s memorable first scene.
“Beware Of Mr. Baker"s official US premiere tonight at the Film Forum in New York City coincides with the star's return to touring after years of self-exile from drumming. Bulger, who speaks with an auctioneer's pace and Baker-esque prickliness, rang up The Huffington Post to talk about what it was like journeying with this great anti-hero, his new project on the end of music, and why he’s done with documentaries.
HP: It couldn't have been easy to up and go to South Africa. What was your thought process?
JB: I was sitting on my couch and my friend played me this documentary about Ginger Baker driving across the desert on heroin to go see Fela Kuti, and I was just blown away. That he’d driven from England to Africa, to the motherland of his instrument: that was not only admirable but insane. Also, he looked like a character out of Charles Dickens' asshole. A maniac.
When I started looking at his life, I was like, ‘Too bad that guy is dead. He has to be dead.’ He looked like he was going to die in 1972. He was the only living member in Playboy’s Dead Band. He was voted least likely to survive the 60s. He was the biggest junkie of his day.
Then I found out he was alive. I was searching for his name and I found this article that said that he had dropped trou in court [to prove that the woman he was suing had never slept with him]. This woman who worked as a bank teller at a bank -- he’d fallen in love with her, and she’d conned him, taken his bank details and withdrawn his money. He was suing the biggest bank in South Africa. I was like, “This guy is fucking amazing.”
I knew him circuitously through a client so I called him and told him I wrote for Rolling Stone, which wasn’t true. He didn’t like talking on the phone and was like, 'Show up here.' I was 25. I flew to South Africa not knowing what was going to happen, and I lived with him for months and it was nuts.
One day he was like, 'When is this Rolling Stone article coming out?' And I was like, 'Fuck, there isn’t a story!' I called Rolling Stone and was like, 'I’m living with Ginger Baker,' and then I pointed at Ginger and he screamed at me so they could hear it [for confirmation]. I came back and wrote the article. I was shooting everything and making a documentary and I took the article and video that I had shot and raised a bunch of money. I went back to Africa. After another three months of filming, as I was leaving on the last day, he broke my nose with a cane.
HP: Why did he do that?
JB: I think he has serious withdrawal issues. It’s a pattern that started when his dad went off to World War II, and he ran after the train crying. He’s recreated that trauma throughout his life for better and worse. It’s easier for him to burn bridges than it is to keep them open. He lives at the end of the world, and at this point in his life [when Bulger arrived] he had created his ultimate dream. He made millions of dollars playing with Cream and then he built all of these polo complexes. It’s like you’re entering Xanadu or something, or Citizen Kane -- with gates that say he’s kind of like this African chief. He wanted to create his own kingdom and world in which no one can question his authority.
Unfortunately, having 38 polo horses is really expensive. Over the course of the last four and a half years we witnessed him blow all of his money and alienate himself from yet another community and move on to the next place.
HP: Was it hard watching him self-destruct that way?
JB: He’s a man of his own volition. How do you feel sorry for someone with 38 horses? I didn’t feel sad because when the money went out he’d have to go back to playing. Selfishly I was looking forward to that. I think he’s still got it in him.
HP: Has he seen the movie?
JB: No, he doesn’t want to. But you know, he comes around, does Q&As and stuff, comes to film festivals. We’re still cool.
HP: Has he ever caused a scene on one of those trips?
JB: He threatened to smash a bottle over the head of the director of the London Film Fest. They wanted him to stop smoking backstage, and he was like, 'Go fuck yourself,' and they were like, 'Well your movie’s playing so if the alarm goes off they’re going to have to stop your movie.' He wanted to smash a bottle over [the director’s] head. It was pretty stressful.
HP: You’ve had three distinct careers so far -- boxer, model and filmmaker -- which is two more than most 30-year-olds. Do you think you’ve found your calling in documentaries?
JB: I've always wanted to be a filmmaker. But initially I was drawn to music videos, because of Spike Jonze. When we were kids, music videos were these awesome art forms that had money behind it. They’d list the name of the band, song and director. I just remember watching them and it was constantly, “Oh my god, that Spike Jonze guy!”
Then I found out [Jonze] went to the high school next to mine. I took this photo class with adults, and when I was developing my pictures this woman in the class was like, “My son, Spike Jonze, makes movies.” Meeting her and talking to her about him I romanticized being a music video director out of college.
The problem with music videos is the best bands don’t have any money to make them, and so you end up spending your own money. I did that for awhile. I just felt like it was a road to somewhere that I couldn’t go. I felt like there was no place for them in the world.
HP: Is there a place for documentaries?
JB: Documentaries are so neverending. The best ones take so many years to make and then they don't make you rich. Not that I need to be rich. I just feel like it's a lot out of me and it would be nice to make some money.
Now I want to make narrative fiction movies that I write, with people who can't punch me in the face unless I tell them to.
HP: Understandable. It is a great first scene though.
JB: You’ve got to get these people's asses glued to their seats. And it's an interesting psychological moment in the film as far as our relationship goes. We’d been working on the movie for three or four months at that point, and I’m leaving, and he decided that he wanted to pick a fight with me. I thought it embodied everything about how he expresses himself and everything that I wanted to say about him, which is that he is a complicated person. He could easily just be written off as a brute, but then when you go back into the movie you realize that it's an uplifting as well as a crazy moment. You think he's going to die, he lost everything, and there he is exerting his force. He goes back on tour. He’s indestructible.
HP: Are you working on anything right now?
JB: I’m doing some documentary development stuff now, but I am focused on making my next film, which is with Jonathan Batiste, the pianist. It’s about music in a time when there isn’t any.
HP: A post-apocalyptic scenario?
JB: Not really, like now. Music sucks right now. It’s so bad. It’s awful. Just for curiosity’s sake I downloaded the top 100 Pitchfork songs over the past four years, and I’m like, “What the fuck is this stuff?” Just awful. I think that eventually music is going to become good again, like it was in the 70s or 80s, when people were masters. It’s just going to get so bad that people are going to have to change. This fucking Korean clown is playing with MC Hammer on a stage, and that’s where we’re at. Justin Bieber. I’m so sick of it.
HP: Are you and Ginger still in touch? You seem to reach a state of true companionship by the end of the movie. How do you feel about him now?
JB: I'm a big fan of villains -- the mad diabolical genius that exists in comic books. I respect him to the extent that I wish there were more people like him. By that I mean people who don't take shit or ask what anybody thinks. But at this point I'm just kind of numb to the whole thing. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about him. He's not exactly the most positive individual I've met.
HP: Which comic book villain is he?
JB: I guess Dr. Doom. When I was a young kid I really liked Dr. Doom. He was created by the Nazis, he lives at the end of the world, he has a bomb shelter. But at the end you realize that he's just a man. He’s an eccentric genius, and like a lot of geniuses he has a hard time getting along with people.