Finding Ginger Baker: First-time filmmaker Jay Bulger traces his journey into the heart of rock & roll darkness
Jay Bulger was waiting, somewhat anxiously, on Wednesday evening. In an hour he was to stand before an audience in one of Film Forum's theaters to introduce his debut feature documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker. I asked him how he was feeling.
"Starting tomorrow, it's the descension," he joked. "My relevance is at a peak."
But the crowd he met was enthusiastic, and it wasn't just any crowd either. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and legendary rock photographer Mick Rock were there, for instance. It seems like, really, Bulger's relevance is just starting to tick up. Beware of Mr. Baker, which is screening through Dec. 11 at Film Forum, has attracted plenty of great attention, including the grand jury prize for documentary film at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March. But it's the kind of attention that usually precedes the real Big Deal.
Career ups and downs have been something of a specialty for Bulger, as well as for the subject of his new film, the famed wildman/recluse/eccentric drummer Ginger Baker. For Bulger, a circuitous path through life has meandered through stints as an amateur boxer, male model, music-video and commercial director, actor, and cultural journalist. At the age of 30 he’s already reinvented himself a number of times over, and seems to have a restless spirit very much akin to Baker’s own.
"He's the master timekeeper, and original rock & roll junkie, superstar, lunatic," Bulger said. "He was living at the end of the world, he was a little bored, he wanted to tell his story, and I happened to be the person who showed up and convinced him to tell it. And it wasn't that easy. He's a really, really, really difficult person to work with, and I'm not special in any means, I just happen to be kind of preconditioned to this type of person. It was like sitting there with my grandfather; his grumpiness, his cantankerousness, I related to it and I'm really attracted to it."
It was Bulger's restlessness, as much as his preconditioning, that landed him in Ginger Baker's lap, so to speak. Actually it was the guest room of Baker's South African compound, where in 2008 Bulger lived for three months, getting to know (and learning to take a torrent of abuse from) the legendary drummer behind Cream, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker's Air Force, Baker Gurvitz Army, and dozens of collaborative efforts, nearly all of them legendary.
Bulger exudes a mix of humility and self-assuredness in conversation, along with plenty of affable dude-ishness and a charming enthusiasm even after four years spent on the film (he expressed his enduring wonder at Baker’s life with any number of “I was just like, man, what the fuck?!”s).
BULGER IS CLEARLY UNAFRAID TO GET INTO TROUBLE AND TAKE big risks, including predicating the whole Ginger Baker venture on a lie.
"I was there making the film, but I had lied to him and told him I was writing an article for Rolling Stone. I was doing the interviews on film, and eventually he was like 'When's the article coming out?' I told him not to worry about it, and he said 'I'm not going to let you do a film about me until the article comes out,' and I was like 'Aw shit, now I really got to do the article.' And I had to become the journalist to make the movie."
"I didn't go there to make a movie about the downfall of Ginger Baker," Bulger said, "but at a certain point I felt like potentially we were documenting that, and it was not the Ginger Baker I had fallen in love with, so I tried to get him stirred up at times."
In the first scene of the movie, Baker, clearly stirred up, wollops Bulger in the face with his cane, breaking his nose.
"The moment that typified him not being that conceited fallen man was with the cane," Bulger said. "Then, immediately, I knew he was back, he still had the fire, he was all right."
The result of Bulger's yearslong effort is a frenetic sprint through Baker's life, starting with that jolt from his cane and thundering through archival footage, interviews with Baker today and his friends, bandmates, and family, and animated sequences that sew it all together. Nick Mason claims Baker as his ultimate inspiration; Lars Ulrich credits him with birthing heavy metal (Baker quips it "should have been aborted!"); Charlie Watts cooly considers Baker's wildness; Eric Claption struggles to define his longtime friend without judgment, and ultimately wonders if he even really knows Baker at all. It's a fair question, and interestingly the more of Baker one witnesses, the less knowable he seems.
Baker's life began just a short time before the start of World War II, and his childhood was largely defined by the conflict, from the routine bomb raids of London to his father's death in the war. As a teen he was awkward, anxious, rambunctious, troublesome, but found an outlet in jazz drumming. He had tremendous talent for percussion—"Time, natural time" as he calls it. He played with various jazz combos, graduating to more blues-rock and pop-oriented groups. He joined Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated, then the Graham Bond Organization, and made a good name in the London music scene. Then his career exploded with Cream, the group he formed with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. The group was huge, but also short-lived, lasting only a couple of years. Blind Faith came next, also with Clapton and Steve Winwood. Another smash, but even shorter-lived. Finally Baker formed his own outfit, Ginger Baker's Air Force. That lasted another couple of years, but by 1971 Baker was feeling restless again, and took off for Nigeria.
The wanderlust didn't stop there. A nervy anxiety seemed to propel Baker around the world—Hawaii, Nigeria, the Italian hinterlands, Colorado, South Africa. Along the way, Baker smashes up friendships, marriages, bands, and of course, himself. First introduced to heroin as a teen, Baker say at one point in the film that he spent the ensuing two decades "getting clean," and while it's unclear if he ever actually escaped the thrall of drugs (he's seen on a morphine inhaler in the film), there's something more elemental than addiction that made Baker's life so jittery, so full of movement, destruction, and reinvention. Bulger's film makes a case that it's Baker's obsessive pursuit of the very nature of percussion, of the almighty beat, a pursuit that's still under way.
BULGER WAS FIRST INSPIRED BY TONY PALMER'S FILM Ginger Baker in Africa, the 1971 document of Baker's drive across the Sahara and his quest to investigate Nigerian drumming and set up a studio in Lagos.
"Here's this indestructible, indomitable force in search of rhythmic perfection," Bulger said of the film and Baker's quest for drumming nirvana in Africa. "To me it's one of the greatest meetings of the minds in music history, and it was authentic, it wasn't like Paul Simon going to South Africa to play some concerts or to shed light on anything, it was Ginger Baker selfishly going to pursue his own perfection of an instrument."
One of the minds Baker met and melded with was Fela Kuti, the legendary Nigerian master-musician, pop star, and cult of personality.
"I was into Fela to begin with," Bulger said. "Here's Malcolm X meets James Brown, this musical revolutionary, using music as the weapon... the Biafran War isn't even really ended, and you have [Baker], this big star fronting his own band with Ginger Baker's Air Force, and he's like, screw it, I'm going to go back on everyone and I'm going to go to Africa for seven years. Who does that? Nobody does that! And it blew my mind."
Bulger was so obsessed, and so convinced that Baker, though he had basically been in semi-seclusion for most of the past two decades, had a story that needed to be told, that he decided to call him up.
"When I called him he was still clearly that same guy, and really interested in talking about [his life]. We were on the same page on him being kind of lost in the annals of history."
Bulger also clearly found Baker fascinating since he's such an intense individual. In his journalistic work anyway, Bulger has been drawn to eccentrics, iconoclasts, and those at the extremes of media and culture—some of his subjects have been Lee "Scratch" Perry, John Gosselin, Paz de la Huerta, and, for an upcoming GQ cover story, Rihanna.
"I really like eccentrics," Bulger said. "I'm obsessed with people who are ultimate individuals. Normalcy bores me, I guess. I like exceptional people because I don't feel exceptional, and so I feel like maybe it rubs off on me or something."
Baker's reclusiveness is in direct opposition to his assuredness of his own greatness, and Bulger's relative inexperience, which may well have afforded him unique access to Baker, also got him into trouble.
"He was well aware that I'm the least likely person to be able to tell [his story], so he's like 'Don't get upset when I break your nose with a cane, because you asked for it you inexperienced little American cretin.' I didn't feel like I deserved to tell the story [either], so I never felt insulted. I didn't know what I was doing, I was figuring it out as I was going along, but you know, nobody else was there doing that."
When it finally came time to put the movie together, Bulger took inspiration from a host of films, including Erroll Morris's The Fog of War and Dig!—the documentary about the strange feud between the two west coast bands the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols—and especially the films of Julien Temple, particularly his Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury.
"It's my favorite music documentary that's ever been made," he said. "The way Julien Temple integrated Richard III, and how it was completely and entirely applicable to the scenes that he was using, I thought this was amazing."
Bulger ended up creating his own internal metaphor with the help of animated sequences provided by artists David Bell and Joe Scarpulla. Throughout the film Baker shows up in various guises inside on of those ancient slave ships full of oarsmen rowing to the beat of a below-decks drummer. First Baker is an ordinary oarsman, then he's the beat-keeping drummer, and finally the captain of the ship, winding its way across a map of the world, leaving fiery destruction in its wake.
"After I returned from Ginger's house, I watched The Seahawk with Erroll Flynn, and Ben Hur with Charlton Heston, and become interested in the idea of the slave-galley ship. The drummer on the ship is the best drummer ever. If you don't keep up with his beat you go down with the ship because you're chained to the ship! So it was like the ultimate form of percussion and metaphor for percussion to me. And then this Danish woman told me there's no difference between addiction and slavery in Danish. And in Ginger's life, he's introduced to heroin and African music at the same time, and then he's in the ship, working his way up to all these incarnations, going on this hopeless or hopeful mission to the end of the world."
Other animated sequences present the stories from Baker's life either too remote (his childhood) or too mythic for any existing footage to express.
"I was like, I have this mythical version of him, all these crazy Ginger Baker stories, like he injected heroin in his eyeballs, or the story where Ginger Baker wouldn't play unless he had a limo, three hookers, and a case of beer. There were so many of those that I left out, so many mythical stories. And as a result he has become this kind of caricature, and the juxtaposition between that character and the one we're watching actually come to grips with his physical limitations because of age, I thought that was really poignant for me to express, because here's this man who is defined both by his physicality and this mythical caricature, and at some point they come to a head. He's just this man, traumatized, just like Citizen Kane. Ok, obviously, I am not comparing my movie to Citizen Kane. But you know, I wanted to have this potentially unlikable character, and in Citizen Kane it's the same thing but at the end of the movie we don't come to like him or hate him, we come to understand who he is."
And Ginger Baker, it turns out, is a whole lot of things: musical genius, bad father, drug addict, animal lover, and on and on. For Bulger, Baker's complexity was a driving force behind making the film, and he hopes audiences will be able to watch generously.
"He's just as complicated as his music. He expresses himself truly through music and that's why the greatest relationships he's had are through music, whereas socially ... he's less than perfect. At one moment, the music is sweet, and sometimes he is, and at other times he can be terrifying and bombastic, just like the drumbeat."
‘Beware of Mr. Baker’ is showing at Film Forum through Dec. 11.
Bottom image courtesy David Bell and Joseph Scarpulla; all other images courtesy SnagFilms.