Ginger Baker movie director both loves and hates his subject

(Trailer for “Beware of Mr Baker” Warning: contains repeated bad language and violent images.)

A couple of years back Jay Bulger contacted legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker at his home in South Africa and told him Rolling Stone magazine had commissioned him to write a profile.

It wasn’t true. However he was able to use the carrot of coverage into getting Baker, a man with an infamous volcanic bad temper, to allow him to stay at his house for several weeks.

“What possessed me to do that? I don’t know. Seemed like a challenge!” Bulger laughed this week. “And I like a challenge. I like villains and he is the ultimate villain.”

Bulger did write that profile, and Rolling Stone published it. Bulger turned around and went back to South Africa with a film crew and the result is “Beware of Mr Baker” which screens in Minneapolis this weekend at the Frozen Docs series at the Film Society of Minneapolis and St Paul.

For decades Baker has pounded out the intricately syncopated pulse of a host of innovative rock bands. He formed Cream with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce, bullied his way into Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, and moved to Nigeria to work with Fela Kuti.

“Ginger Baker is the original rock and roll madman junkie drummer superstar,” said Bulger. “He invented the rock and roll drum solo. He was the greatest drummer by far of his generation. A legendary ghoulish figure.”

All of that comes through in “Beware of Mr Baker.” Bulger’s film opens with Baker attacking him with a walking cane – and breaking his nose.

“I never felt unsafe,” Bulger told me. “I felt maybe physically and challenged at times. But that’s pretty fun, especially coming from someone so much older. It gives me hope that one day when I am 75 or whatever I might be able to break some noses with canes myself.”

Bulger says he first saw Baker in a documentary which followed Baker’s trip across the Sahara desert in the first Range Rover to come off the production line. Bulger says the trip was to get Baker to Lagos, Nigeria so he could join Fela Kuti’s band. It was also a way to wean him off heroin.

“He looked like something right out of Charles Dickens’ (bodily reference deleted), or something,” Bulger said. “You could tell that he was meant to die in the 60’s by the video I saw and so the fact that he was still alive was just remarkable.”

In fact Bulger says he believes there’s a reason why Baker has survived.

“He can’t be killed. He’s unstoppable. He’s made a deal with the devil,” Bulger laughed.

“Beware of Mr Baker” is filled with interviews with rock luminaries ranging from Clapton and Bruce to Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Bulger said initially people were reluctant to talk to him.

“It was difficult. It was really difficult,” he said. “But it was no more difficult than convincing Ginger to let me live with him.”

However once people heard Baker himself had talked, usually in loud and lurid terms, Bulger said more people were willing to sit for his camera.

Everyone describes Baker’s drumming talent in glowing terms. Some are more circumspect on his social skills. Baker is described as beating up fellow band members (including Bruce who he stomped on stage one time.) A string of former wives outline his shortcomings as a life partner, and his now adult children outline the way he has repeatedly disappeared from their lives.

Bulger says many people who see the film come away wondering just what to think.

“For me it’s not about me liking him, and hopefully it’s not about the viewer liking him either. It’s about understanding him. He is so complicated it is really difficult for me to sit there and say do I like him or not. I find him to be one of the greatest comic geniuses of the 20th century as well as potentially one of the most despicable human beings that I have ever come across.”

“He can only express himself through beautifully smashing things.”

Bulger describes Baker as smart, and unlike anyone else on the planet.

“And I love him for that. As well as, I hate his stinking guts too. But it’s more complicated than just yes or no.”

Bulger is now looking to other projects, both documentaries and feature films. But he’s blunt when comparing them with the current film

“Probably nothing as good as this Ginger Baker project, for the rest of my life. But I’d be totally OK with that,” he said. “I’d be happy never doing another thing for the rest of my life, it’s that good. And I’m not bragging.”

Jay Bulger isn’t kidding.