The most memorable scene of Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988) takes place near the end, when the ravaged and drug addicted jazz legend Chet Baker has found himself at the Cannes Film Festival, trying in vain to get the attention of a small, uninterested audience. Baker complains, partly to himself, but loud enough for others to hear, that the crowd is terrible. Finally, he politely asks for silence so he can perform a song. It is, he explains, the sort of number that needs some quiet.
Then, sitting on a wooden stool, holding his vaunted trumpet in his lap but not playing it, he slithers into a beautiful rendition of Elvis Costello’s ‘Almost Blue,’ his soft, childlike voice sliding around the melody. There’s drama when Baker sings, because he’s always on the verge of going off key, and we find ourselves rooting for him as he sneaks back into the song, not singing the notes so much as laying his voice next to them, gentle as a night breeze. He finishes. The handful of spectators applaud, moved; he merely shrugs, as if to say, Ok, that’s all I wanted to do…
Let’s Get Lost was made before the documentary explosion of the 1990s and 2000s. It’s not as self-conscious as more recent documentaries, which often feel scripted and posed, with the filmmakers putting themselves onscreen as much as their subject. Weber, who was already known for his homoerotic Calvin Klein ads, creates a dreamy, downbeat atmosphere for this story of Chet Baker, filmed in a shimmering black and white; much of the film feels like a lazy summer evening in Santa Monica. Weber’s style also fits in with the clips from Howlers of the Dock, the cheesy Italian movie where Baker played ‘Chet l’americano,’ back when he walked a fine line between brooding trumpet master and teen idol.
Weber teases the old glamor of Baker, filming him in the backseat of a convertible, a woman on each arm. It feels stagy, silly, until you see Baker’s withered face. He was 56 at the time of the film, but he looks 86 – the spirit of California cool’s past, dried up like an apple carving. Then we see him in a recording studio, laying down a ballad. It’s strange to hear the still youngish voice coming out of the mummified air. He talks, tells stories about his early days, but he’s not a great storyteller. He takes long pauses between thoughts, like he’s trying to recall a deep buried dream. As with most top musicians, he has no easy explanation for what he does. The trick to life, he offers, is to “find something you love to do, and then do it better than anyone else.” Baker seems to be in slow-motion, even when he’s not. Weber shoots some the movie in slow-motion, perhaps trying to capture the feel of floating through an evening while smacked out on heroin.
Gradually we learn the details: Baker, as a young trumpet prodigy, played with Charlie Parker, and was later part of Gerry Mulligan’s groundbreaking “piano-less” quartet. Renowned jazz photographer William Claxton took photos of Baker back in 1953, and was floored by how the raw kid from Oklahoma was such a natural for the camera. Since most male jazz artists of the day were eggheads in horn-rimmed glasses, or pudgy old guys with perspiring foreheads, young Baker must’ve seemed like a game changer. That he could play his horn like a sad ghost helped. But when he released an album of romantic ballads sung in a whispery voice, he sealed his fate among the jazz cognoscenti – he was irretrievably “West Coast,” an easy and disdainful label.
The movie follows Baker through what turned out to be the last year of his life. Shortly after the film was made, he fell from a window to his death, a life of music and secrets breaking apart on an Amsterdam sidewalk. Some think he was pushed. Judging by what we hear in the movie, Baker may have had some enemies who were perfectly willing to chuck him out a window. Interspersed with the footage of Baker are scenes of old friends, ex-wives, and fellow musicians sharing their thoughts. Baker was, by most accounts, a jerk. He was a liar, a manipulator, and like most junkies, irresponsible and unreliable.
One old buddy from the Okie days remembers catching his girlfriend in bed with Baker. He only laughs. When your best friend is a rattlesnake, you learn to admire his bite.
Baker had various wives and children, and we meet some of them in the movie. They seem like average folks, no special talents, just working and struggling, what Baker might’ve been like had he not discovered the trumpet. The children who appear in the film, teens mostly, put on a show of good cheer for Weber’s camera, but they seem distant from their father. He’s a mystery to them.
Weber, who received an Oscar nomination for Let’s Get Lost, helped kick off a brief revival of interest in Baker that took place in the 1990s. Weber has spent a lifetime recording the male face and figure, mostly for print ads. He’s also directed other documentaries, and a handful of music videos, including one for late 80s heartthrob Chris Isaak, who appears briefly in Let’s Get Lost. We can see why Weber’d be interested in Baker as a subject, if only because it’s the other side of the coin for male beauty – it’s male decay. The film, wrote Pauline Kael, “isn't primarily about Chet Baker the jazz musician; it's about Chet Baker the love object, the fetish.” Kael added, “It’s about love, but love with few illusions.”
What Weber does so smartly is to let Baker stand alone. We don’t see a lot of jamming with other musicians, or arguing with ex-lovers. We usually see him by himself, as a talking head, or playing his trumpet on a rooftop. This way, he becomes a kind of totem, and we can apply whatever meaning we wish. That’s partly why his critics have been so hard on Baker, dismissing his fans as being only interested in his image, whether the young pretty boy or the decrepit druggie, and that they’re less interested in jazz music than in a bleak story. But Weber knows Baker is a symbol of something -- squandered chances, the forgotten artist crying to be heard -- and lets him be a symbol. Meanwhile, the ex-wives drill him from the sidelines.
The women interviewed all tell a similar story – Baker was lovely at first, but eventually turned into a rat. Even his mother’s interview follows the pattern, as she happily recalls the precocious little boy, an infant really, who would put his ear next the family radio and memorize songs. Then Weber asks if she’s disappointed in how her son turned out. “Let’s not go into that,” she says, but the old woman’s face says everything.
Even the famous story of how Baker lost his teeth gets a workover – he claims he was beaten up by “five black guys” who were trying to rob him, while one of his exes, jazz singer Ruth Young, believes the attackers were probably paid to punch him out.
Though they never married, Young shared a decade with Baker. The sort of brassy broad that can only be found in jazz circles, she recalls Baker as a “neurotic idiot,” and admonishes herself for buying into a “mystique that isn’t necessarily real.” She mocks his myth, joking about how he couldn’t dress himself or comb his hair, and how she used to help glue his teeth back into his head. But she’s more articulate than anyone else in the movie when it comes to distilling her relationship with Baker to its essence. “It would be like living with Picasso,” she says, “the closest I could get to greatness." Put that way, one can almost understand why anyone would put up with such a slimy character, or why anyone would care that he got lost.