SXSW 2012: Beware of Mr. Baker

by |

Beware of Mr. Baker documentary poster (Director: Jay Bulger)

Beware Of Mr. Baker received the Grand Jury prize for best documentary at SXSW’s 2012 Film Festival last month. It’s an entertaining bio doc about Ginger Baker, perhaps best known as the jazz-rock drummer of the 60′s rock supergroups Cream and Blind Faith.

Jay Bulger, the film’s director, lied his way into the life of the notoriously cantankerous and now reclusive Baker, now 72, telling him he was writing a piece for Rolling Stone magazine. In a twist, the piece became real — “The Devil and Ginger Baker” was published in Rolling Stone, after Bulger lived embedded with Baker in his South African home, which does, in fact, have a sign out front that reads “Beware of Mr. Baker.”

The article provided Bulger an opportunity to create a next piece, a documentary that captures the chaos, humor and turmoil that surround Baker. The film, which had its world premiere at SXSW 2012, begins at the end, with Baker braking Bulger’s nose with his walking stick.

How is your relationship with Mr. Baker these days?

Jay Bulger, director of Beware of Mr. Baker: We talk about once every week or two. Sometimes for a while. Sometimes he just hangs up when he hears my voice. Depends on the time of day, his drug intake, and the current state of affairs. He’s much easier to talk to when there is drama, because he likes to have someone to talk to about them, whether it be suing the African Bank or relationship issues.

He can be quite a sensitive person, actually. I’m sure that if I knew more about horses, we could talk more. But for me, I just like to leave things on a good note and call when there is good news. I don’t like bothering him. He said, “Good job” about winning SXSW.

Ginger Baker has a reputation for living a chaotic lifestyle. Did you have any hesitation about writing about him or filming him?

What drew me in was the fact that if he was less chaotic and had a better reputation, not only would the music most likely have sounded much different, but some safe documentary filmmaker would already have made it. When I heard that he was at the end of the world, forgotten, that he had burned through so many bridges, I thought, “Now he’s ready to talk.”

He knows how great his story is, and he wanted to tell it. On a personal basis, I am attracted to people who reside in obscurity, who are at the end of their life, who are misunderstood, because they have the best stories. More importantly, I knew that being around him was going to be completely unpredictable and fun.

Was there a plan going in?

There was no plan. I called him up on the phone because he sounded like the most fascinating character I had ever come across. We spoke for many hours, and then one day he said, “Just come here! I have bad hearing!” And I said, “Where am I going to stay?” And he said, “With me, you idiot!” So I borrowed a camera and some money and just went there. I’m not big on planning. When Ginger Baker asks you to come live with him, there is no time for planning. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. I knew that while I would be in debt, I would at least have that experience. I always wanted to make a film, but the reality of such happened over time, after writing the Rolling Stone article, raising funds, etc. It took me two years to get back there.

In the documentary, you show pieces of interviews with a number of music icons from Baker’s life, including Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Johnny Rotten among many. Did you have any difficulty getting them to open up about Ginger Baker and their relationships with him?

Everyone was incredibly helpful and receptive and honored to be a part of such an important story. No difficulties whatsoever. Well, Johnny Rotten did insist that we finish a case of beer before beginning the interview, which made it a bit more difficult to formulate my thoughts. More fun though!

Does Ginger Baker have any plans to help support the film?

I wouldn’t expect or ask him to do anything he didn’t want to do as I know he hates going so many hours on the plane without a smoke, so I’ve got to make it worth his while.

I know he’s had visa problems and financial difficulties lately. Has his financial situation improved at all since the film was finished?

No. He’s blown everything — didn’t expect to live long enough to spend it. But in his own words, “God is punishing me for my past wickedness by keeping me alive and in as much pain as he can!” Ha! That’s his life story.

Beware of Mr. Baker continues its festival run, with screenings continuing later this month at Hot Docs and Independent Film Festival Boston. Find out more about the film on its official site and on Facebook.

Get more documentary film news and features: Subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.
  • Molinarot

    Ginger’s high hat work alone is better than what any of these hand job so called drummers could ever dream of playing . Hey Ginger you know what …. You showed those Yanks how to play but none of them could even hold a metronome to your caliber…. I love ya you’re the greatest you changed it all

  • J Temple

    Molinarot,
    You have “eloquently” said what is true. My first concert I ever went to, many years ago, during the “Goodbye Cream” tour. Then a few  years ago, I was again blown off my seat, while seeing the Cream Reunion DVD. My lords, no one plays the drums like Ginger and now one ever will.
    While others musicians play “the Drums”, when Ginger plays them ……they are like a different instrument altogether.
     I can’t wait to see the documentary.

  • Pingback: PBS POV Article on “Beware of Mr. Baker” ‹ Insurgent Media

  • neffscott

    Great documentary, Jay. As unpleasant of a person Baker can be, I can’t help but still not really like and respect the man. I was lucky to catch the Midwest premier of “Beware of Mr. Baker” here in Minneapolis.

  • Vito

    LA Times did a lot of digging to track down members of the Academy. The results: only 2% are under 40 years old, 96% are white, and 77% are male.

    I’m sure that they can all appreciate good work, but it is not outside the scope of the imagination that one specific demographic would be partial to films and topics made by its peers.

    • Tom Roston

      wow, i knew it skewed that way, but not to that degree.

  • THE ACT OF KILLING

    Jehane is not the sole nominee. One of The Act of Killing’s two nominees, Signe Byrge Sørensen, is a woman!

  • Tom Roston

    Yes: I made a colossal error in not mentioning that three (THREE!) of the films have women producers who have been nominated this year. They may not be the directors but they are nominees nonetheless. Full correction, and apology, to come tomorrow.

  • Heidi Millay

    Love this conversation. I work at First Run – over one third of the docs we released last year were directed or co-directed by women (and if you include producers, which I would if I had the info in front of me, that percentage skyrockets). So I’m not sure the problem *necessarily* lies in, or is confined to, the area of sales/distribution.

    Also, as an aside, 40% of our staffers are women (and I’ve seen it be as high as 60% in my 8+ years here), so even though our president is a man, I wouldn’t say that means we (as a distributor) are “controlled by men.” We all have a say in acquisitions. I’m sure it’s not that way everywhere, but I’m pleased to say it is here.

  • Wendy Levy

    So glad this discussion is happening. Tom, thanks for the data that informs your pov. It is startling and not at all surprising. I don’t get nearly as upset that women aren’t nominated for Academy Awards, since so many of the best films and performances go unrewarded, as I do about the boys club that makes the rules and perpetuates the exclusion. As Annie also notes, more women in positions of influence in the industry will result in a more equitable culture. It’s not just that we need more women sales agents (we do). And not just that we need more badass women producers and directors (we do) – and they deserve more awards for sure — but ultimately and immediately, we need smart women heads of companies, decision-makers, bankers, visionary industry thinkers with clout — who intentionally defy the paternalistic boundaries that exclude women and people of color, valuing profit over substance and meaning, refusing to mentor and take real risks with emerging artists, and instead, parachute in like a hero to buy the work think will line their pockets most.

    I could go on, but always appreciate the opportunity to raise a little hell.

  • Aga

    hire a fiftish guy in a courdory suit? why? because people like stories to be told. A story of a filmmaker features some corduroy and a fiftyish male. Don’t fight the system – use it. I’ts the only way. And also – do some didactic asswhooping

  • Beatriz Jean Wallace

    I am so grateful that you wrote this article. I think about these issues ALL the time – when I’m running, eating Sunday breakfast, practicing yoga… It’s hard to shake. As a professor of documentary film, and a filmmaker myself, I SO value this validation and public attention to a quantitatively measurable, and measured problem.

  • Tom Roston

    The sales agent factor was on my mind, but I didn’t mention it, because I could have said that Submarine and Cinetic dominate (both run by men), but didn’t have much else. Thanks for this report from the trenches.