Director of Ginger Baker documentary took a whipping from Cream drummer
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporteremail@example.com February 1, 2013 2:28PM
Updated: March 4, 2013 6:21AM
Jay Bulger is a 30-year-
old former Golden Gloves boxer.
His life has been a strange brew.
The skin cancer survivor parlayed a boxing career into work as an Armani model. He later directed music videos and commercials for bands including the Hold Steady and the Washington Social Club.
What made Bulger want to make his debut documentary about Ginger Baker, the blown-out, 73-year-old jazz-rock drummer best known for his work with Cream?
“The real question is why no one else picked him,” Bulger cracked during a phone conversation from Los Angeles to promote “Beware of Mr. Baker,” which runs through Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State.
“Beware of Mr. Baker” won the grand jury award for best documentary feature at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival. “I’m a fan of the music, but maybe it is not so much about being a fan as it is so ingrained into world history and culture,” Bulger said. “It’s inescapable. I hear Cream through the streets on classic rock stations. ‘Disreali Gears’  was my favorite record.”
“Beware of Mr. Baker” is as powerful — and memorable — as the African-tinged intro to the Cream hit “White Room.” The 92-minute doc follows Baker across the world in his lifelong quest for meaning.
Baker opened a recording studio in Nigeria, collaborated with the great Fela Kuti and once flew his car to his home in Jamaica. Baker has been married four times, reportedly tried to quit heroin at least 29 times and collects polo ponies — an upper-crust hobby that caused a division between Baker and Fela.
Bulger was not aware of Baker’s existence until 2006, when he saw the 1971 documentary “Ginger Baker In Africa,” which documents Baker’s road trip from Algeria to Nigeria. He opened the mystical doors to Baker in 2008 by presenting himself as a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine.
He was not.
After pestering Baker with more than a dozen calls, Bulger was finally invited to the drummer’s home in South Africa. Baker greeted Bulger by smacking him in the nose with his cane.
Eventually, Bulger wrote the piece “The Devil and Ginger Baker,” which Rolling Stone ran in August 2009.
Bulger returned to South Africa in the spring of 2010 to begin the documentary. His boxing career informed “Beware of Mr. Baker” more than his work in the music industry.
“Waking up every day and not being scared to get in the ring with this person,” explained Bulger, who last fought in 2002 as a super middleweight. “Ginger is an animal. He’s Grendel [from ‘Beowulf’]. Boxing is all rhythm. It’s dancing. It’s being on the edge at all times. I’m not a musician, so it would be hard to compare boxing and drumming, but I imagine so. At the level that Cream was performing it seemed like they were at war for sure.”
The documentary features interviews with dozens of players who have spin-cycled through Baker’s world. There’s Steve Winwood (Blind Faith and Ginger Baker’s Air Force), Charlie Watts (speaking of the Stones, he says “We were trying to be like a band in Chicago. [Cream was] something else.”), Carlos Santana, Fema Kuti and Baker’s children, including his estranged son Kofi, who now plays drums in the tribute band the Cream Experience.
Most fascinating are sit-downs with Baker’s compatriots from Cream: bassist Jack Bruce, who is Baker’s eternal foil, and Eric Clapton, whose camp actually led Bulger to Baker.
Clapton’s comments are deeply thoughtful. Watching the carnage between Bruce and Baker drove Clapton to tears, which led to the demise of Cream.
“Do I know Ginger well?,” Clapton asks Bulger. “Do I? I probably haven’t seen him like you have. I always pulled back when things got scary and difficult.”
Of Clapton, with his voice choking, Baker says, “He is the best friend I’ve got on this planet. And he always will be.”
Between the Rolling Stone piece and “Beware of Mr. Baker,” Bulger lived with Baker for six months.
“I didn’t use anything from my first trip except for that beginning,” Bulger said. “The second time I went back with just two people. A director of photography, a camera guy and I did sound. Ginger tortured me to get what I got, but he likes telling stories. We’d spend about four hours a day. I got everything I needed within the first week. The conversation was so unbelievably one-sided — and utterly engaging.”
Baker’s childhood memories emerge as a metaphor for his powerful drumming. Born three weeks before the declaration of World War II, he heard bombs go off in the basement of his family home in South London. “I still hear explosions to this day,” Baker said.
Bulger said, “There were warnings he was going to walk out of [the project], but once I sat down with him we had a lot to talk about. We had the common Ginger experience. He is the most compelling figure I could have dreamed up. I like Bob Dylan and I find him much more fascinating, and the complicated, psychological implications are much more fascinating to me than Dylan or Bill Withers,” as seen in the acclaimed “Still Bill” documentary.
Bulger keeps in touch with Baker, who has relocated to Britain. Again.
“He gave the documentary 85 percent,” Bulger said. “He deducted 10 points for my version of his fight with Jack Bruce. In his words, he didn’t pull a knife on him, he beat him up with his ‘bare fists.’ And then he thought the animation was really dark.
“Financing for this was brutal, especially getting the music. It is an amalgam of every single label that exists in the world. But this was obviously a gift from heaven. I’m now trying to do a movie about jazz singers from Detroit. I like music documentaries, but there are so many elements that are uncontrollable that ultimately become so frustrating and self-defeating.”