Why He's On Our Radar: Jay Bulger suffered a broken nose at the hand of the subject of his first feature-length documentary, "Beware of Mr. Baker," but the injury was clearly worth it. His arresting expose on Ginger Baker, the legendary (and legendarily volatile) English drummer, best known for his work with Cream and Blind Faith, won the grand jury documentary prize at this year's SXSW film festival. It comes out Friday, Nov. 30, via SnagFilms (Indiewire's parent company). The film chronicles the madman's rise to rock'n'roll fame and his descent into near obscurity in South Africa, where he currently resides — and where Bulger spent more than three months living with the legend.
More About Him: Bulger, a Fordham University grad, boxed in several New York Golden Glove boxing tournaments before finding success as a model for Armani, Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole after photos of his fighting got around to model scouts. He switched gears from modelling to writing and directing following a two-year bout with cancer, and he has since gone on to helm music videos for bands such as The Hold Steady and The Washingston Social Club and to write for publications such as Rolling Stone and GQ. "Beware of Mr. Baker" was, in fact, inspired by his own article for Rolling Stone, titled "In Search of Ginger Baker."
What's Next: "I’m doing this movie called 'The Great Mojo Revival' with Jonathan Batiste," Bulger tells Indiewire. "It’s a narrative-fiction movie, starring the great pianist. He’s a character. He’s an old-school musician, pianist, virtuoso — and I’m making a movie about what it’s like to be a young, handsome, jazz-pianist master in 2012 that harks back to the old school-type of jazz musician. People aren’t remunerated like they used to be for their artistry. What does that say about our culture, and is there room in our society for someone of that greatness to save us from our own cultural demise? Seriously, it’s bad out there. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying it’s fucked. That’s why I was really honored to be able to tell this story."
Tell me about the first time you went to his house and met him. How did that come about?
I lied and told him that I was a Rolling Stone journalist. But I went there to make a film. I called him and I was like, “I’m a Rolling Stone journalist and I want to make a documentary about you,” and I kept calling him. Eventually, he said, “Just come here.” I showed up at his house; he let me in and he let me shoot interviews with him, every day, for a month. I lived with him. Eventually, he was like, “When’s this article coming out?” I had to call Rolling Stone at that point, and I had him in the background, yelling… I was like, “Yell at me!” at a certain point, “I want Ginger Baker!”
He had gotten into this dispute with the African bank. This woman he was fond of had taken his bank card details — she had purchased all of these cars and shit, robbed him — so he was suing the biggest bank in Africa. Her family and people were out to get him… It was this unbelievably weird situation. I heard about that part of it through the blog, and that’s why I went there. Anyway, I started videotaping all of that stuff, and he kept reminding me to write the article… So I called Rolling Stone up and I was like, “Yeah, it’s crazy. There are assassins, and people want to kill him.” And they were like, “Okay. Let’s see when you get back.” I had never really written anything before; it was an obstacle. I didn’t think I could. I had screwed myself into a career as a journalist of sorts — it worked out for the better, but it surely made things take longer.
Did he ever catch on to the fact that you weren’t a Rolling Stone writer?
I think he did, I think he knew. As a result, I think he was like… “Well, let’s see what you can do.” I liked his honesty. He’s brutally honest, so it was refreshing to see him challenge me in the same way that he challenges himself. It’s to a fault, you know. He says whatever comes to his mind — he doesn’t give a shit. It was really nice to have been a man of my own word; I said I was going to do some things and I’ve done them. I feel good having accomplished that, this long, arduous, task that I set out to do, that I promised him I would do.
Now you're no life-long fan of the guy. The film makes clear that you just happened upon Baker's legacy thanks to a DVD chronicling his meeting with Fela Kuti.
Yeah, not really. I just watched that thing, and what I saw, at that moment in time, was one of the greatest musicians ever, going to meet this Fela Kuti character — who I had known a lot about. Fela’s one of my favorite musicians. I love that music that Fela Kuti created, and it was so important because he was a civil rights leader. He stood up against oil partnerships, and so forth, and that colonial mentality. He was like James Brown meets Malcolm X in Africa. I heard that Fela had driven across the Sahara Desert to get off acid, and left his family, fame and fortune behind to go there and play — the Motherland of his instrument.
Whereas everyone else rested on their laurels, [Ginger] didn’t care. He didn’t care about money, or fame, or any of that. He was in pursuit of written perfection. He didn’t go there for a press opportunity like Paul Simon, or any of these people. He went and lived there for a decade; there was no color barrier, he wasn’t scared… He was like, “Fuck. This is where I need to be.” It seemed like a natural progression, and I was blown away. This should not only be a story, it should be in the Smithsonian. This artifact — the meeting of Western and Eastern cultures. And then when I found out he was alive, in this lawsuit, and still totally nuts, I was like, “Great. Cool. We need to do this.” What gave you the confidence to pull a project of this magnitude off?
I had directed some music videos before and some commercials… I had just recovered from cancer and been a champion boxer my whole life, so maybe, to my own fault, I just do what I want. Like I said, I lied and said I worked for Rolling Stone. I’m a bit of a self-optimist-manipulator. I don’t know if other people do that, but for me — if you ask me what I’m doing next, I’ll tell you something that I haven’t started… I might not even know if it’s possible, but in my mind, I say: “This is what I am doing. It’s happening.” And sometimes that doesn’t work out well — in this case, it did.
There was this overwhelming burden of built-up promises that I had made; I had borrowed lots of money, bought a camera, plane tickets, and lived in Africa for three months. There was no way back at that point. He was the greatest obstacle, and I worried every moment that he would get angry and things would fall through. There were so many moments when I thought, this isn’t going to work out, which would have been a fucking bummer. It was just like things came together… From the soundtrack to the archive that existed that I stumbled into, just everything — it felt like it was meant to be. If I hadn’t made it, I sure as hell hope someone else would have, who wasn’t scared of him.
What was your relationship with Baker like when the cameras were off?
Same way it was with my grandfather, you know. It was like, get him some tea, sit down, watch TV, don’t talk. I mean — we talked, but he’s a moody guy. He’s on a highly regimented morphine intake. The morphine diet is one that makes you really moody at some point and not at others; I planned the interviews around his morphine. I hung out with him around his morphine intake. He’s really good around dinner, not so good early afternoon, around noon he’s good, and morning: get the fuck out of his way, he’s like riding horses and running over pedestrians. He’s right out of Charles Dickens’ asshole — he’s just a villain and I love that. He’s just like a character from another dimension; we don’t really have people like that anymore. And by that, I mean: explorers. Everything’s kind of been found, and musically, it’s stagnant… Peter Beard was like that, too. He’s really unbelievable, and it’s been exciting to be a friend; to be on that journey, I’ve been constantly enamored. I haven’t regretted any of it for a second. Well — maybe, for a second, when he broke my nose with a cane. Still, even that moment, I felt, was really revealing. It was the last day we were together; the first time I was there, when I left the last day, he also picked a fight with me. He’s got emotional withdrawal issues or something, and it’s easier for him to burn things than it is to long, or miss, or whatever. It’s like, “You’re leaving? Cool.” I either shake your hand and we go the other way, or I just burn that. He’s a bridge burner.
His ex-bandmates and ex-wives feature prominently in the film, but his new wife, who you were staying with, doesn't get much screen time. In her one scene, she says so much by not saying much of anything.
You see the gold chain dangling, she’s really young. She’s got a kid. She’s from a certain background. He’s there, he needs someone to take care of him. He’s got the “rock star” thing. I think he’s a really good stepfather, and I think, at this point in his life, he actually relates much better to kids and animals than he does to humans. I think he’s got some form of Aspergers, or autism, and I think he relates to people more with his music. I think that’s how he’s most capable of expressing himself.
When I asked that question [to her], I was really surprised. He had screwed something up, like, earlier that day he had done an interview and told them that she had been in a drug gang before and had done this and that. The newspaper was like, “Ginger Baker’s Wife In Drug Gang,” and he was like, “Oh, shit.” It’s hard to be in his life, because there’s so many implications and repercussions and the drama continues. Here he is, at the end of the world, suing a national bank, and his foot just keeps tapping — he’s like bored, and he just loves creating chaos. He’s an anarchist. He loves it, the bombing; he was born into chaos and I think he arrives in chaos and people like Eric Clapton are like, “I just want to chill,” and Ginger’s like, “I’m trying to live at the end of the world very quietly. Unfortunately, my dogs have gone next door and killed an entire flock of ostriches and I’m just going to have to tell that guy to fuck off.” You know what I mean? He can’t escape it.