Monday, November 17, 2008

Let's Get Lost

Why do we find ourselves fascinated by people who seem to have it all: good looks, loads of talent, and that special sort of something that elevates them to iconic status? Yet, they can never seem to handle this power and inevitably something, whether it is a self-destructive streak from within or outside influences, brings them crashing back to earth. It is this tragic arc that we find so fascinating — people who seem to have everything and then throw it all away. Such is the case with Bruce Weber’s absorbing documentary-portrait Let’s Get Lost (1988), which focuses on jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, a man who epitomized what Pauline Kael called, a “self-destructive beauty.”

The film’s title originates from the first Chet Baker album renowned photographer Weber bought at the age of 16 in a Pittsburgh record store. This purchase started a life-long obsession with the man’s music and career. This gives you an indication of the attitude that Weber has towards Baker. Essentially a two-hour love letter to its subject (Weber spent about a million dollars of his own money on the film), Let’s Get Lost assembles a strange and wonderful group of Baker fans that range from ex-associates to ex-wives to paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was as self-absorbed in life as he was talented on record and stage.

Weber’s film trace’s the man’s career from the 1950s, when he was in his prime, playing with jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan, to the 1980s where he had become a skid row junkie unable to get a decent gig. By juxtaposing these two decades, Weber presents a sharp contrast between the younger, handsome Baker — the statuesque idol who resembled a dreamy mix of James Dean and Jack Kerouac — to what he became, “a seamy looking drugstore cowboy cum derelict,” as J. Hoberman put it in his Village Voice review. Baker was the archetype of “beat,” encompassing the full range of this term throughout his whole life: from its connotations of coolness in the ‘50s when he was young and handsome, to its inferences of world-weariness in the ‘80s when he was old and burnt out.

Let’s Get Lost begins near the end of Baker’s life on the sun-kissed beaches of Santa Monica and ends at the glitz and glamour of the Cannes Film Festival. Weber uses these moments in the present as bookends to the historic footage contained in the bulk of the film. This documentation ranges from vintage photographs by William Claxton in 1953 to appearances on The Steven Allen Show and kitschy, low budget Italian films Baker did for quick money. And even though much of his past is captured only in still photos, Weber and his director of photography, Jeff Preiss, use creative camera techniques to energize these static pictures in a way that almost brings them lovingly to life.

And who better to do a film about a self-centered icon like Chet Baker than Bruce Weber, an internationally renowned photographer famous for his fetishistic Calvin Klein ads? Weber clearly has an eye for the kind of vacuous beauty that you see not only in those pretentious ads but that is also reflected in Baker’s blank stare. One of the joys of watching Let’s Get Lost is the lush cinematography of Jeff Preiss who films the whole picture in grainy black and white film stock. His camera alternates between hand-held shots and gliding pans of Baker and his world that only enhance the dreamy mood of Weber’s film.

This romantic mood, complemented by Baker’s enchanting voice and music, enhances the film’s soundtrack. His slow, seductive singing has been described as “like being sweet-talked by the void,” and this is certainly true of Baker’s more recent recordings where he really sounds tired, as if each breath is going to be his last. This feeling is demonstrated towards the end of the film when Baker performs Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a quiet sort of song and as soon as Baker begins to sing the rest of the world seems to disappear, leaving only this ravaged, emaciated shadow of his former self, who still has an entrancing presence and the power to captivate an audience.

Weber’s first film was the 1987 documentary Broken Noses, which concerned the life of a youthful, Bakeresque Portland boxer named Andy Minsker and his even younger protégés. Weber dedicated the film to Baker and even featured some of the man’s music in the film. However, the origins of Let’s Get Lost go back even further to when Baker spotted a photograph of the musician in a Pittsburgh record store on the cover of the 1955 vinyl LP Chet Baker Sings and Plays with Bud Shank, Russ Freeman and Strings when he was 16-years-old.

Weber first met Baker in the winter of 1986 at a club in New York City. Weber convinced the musician to do a photo shoot and what was originally to be nothing more than a three-minute film. Weber had wanted to make a short film from an Oscar Levant song called, “Blame It on My Youth.” They had such a good time together that Baker started opening up to Weber. Afterwards, he convinced the musician to make a longer film and Baker agreed. Filming began in January 1987. Interviewing Baker was a challenge as Weber remembers, "Sometimes we'd have to stop for some reason or another and then, because Chet was a junkie and couldn't do things twice, we'd have to start all over again. But we grew to really like him."

The final two-hour result is the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker song: a slow, dreamy trip that captivates you with its breathless beauty and yet shows the man’s unsavory side as well: the downward spiral into drug addiction and the string of failed marriages. It’s a bittersweet love story — much like many of Baker’s songs. Weber sums up these mixed feelings best in an interview when he said that “the whole team felt the same way about him. We wanted to save him. We wanted to get him a house, a car. But he really didn’t want to be saved. And after a while, we gave up trying. When you live and survive as long as he did, you get a little bit paranoid about what’s going on. If Chet had any anger, it was because of the pressures with people wanting him to do things he didn’t want to do.” In May 1987, when Broken Noses premiered at Cannes, he brought Baker along to shoot footage for Let's Get Lost. Weber filmed when he had the time and the money, describing it as a "a very ad hoc film.”

On May 13, 1988, a few months before Let’s Get Lost was to be released, Chet Baker died mysteriously after a fall from a second-floor window in an Amsterdam hotel near the drug dealers’ part of town. That night, all the jazz clubs in Paris were silent. Weber’s film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary and played at film festivals all over the world.

It was well-received by critics, including Entertainment Weekly, which gave the film an "A-" rating and said that Weber "created just about the only documentary that works like a novel, inviting you to read between the lines of Baker's personality until you touch the secret sadness at the heart of his beauty.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, "If there's a driving force to Weber's film, it seems to be delving into the nature and purpose of star quality and personal magnetism, which Baker had in droves but which didn't save him.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote that what Weber "provides us is rapturous, deeply involving, and more than a little puzzling."

Let’s Get Lost remains one of the best visual documents of Chet Baker’s tragic life and career.


SOURCES

Adams, James. "Through a Legend, Darkly." The Globe and Mail. September 9, 2006.

Hoberman, J. "Self-Destructive Beauties." The Village Voice. April 25, 1989.

Kreigmann, Jame. "Requiem for a Horn Player." Esquire. December 1988.

James, Nick. "Return of the Cool." Sight & Sound. June 2008.


Lewis, Anne S. "Chet Baker in Black and White, but Still Blurry." The Austin Chronicle. April 27, 2007.

2 comments:

  1. I'll definitely have to check this out. I'm a big fan of Chet Baker. It is so sad how his life turned out. The man had incredible talent, but he certainly had his share of demons.

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  2. He had an amazing voice. So smooth and dreamy. This doc. is a little hard to find if you can only play Region 1 DVDs but there is a really nice Region 2 edition out there. Hopefully, Bruce Weber will release it on Region 1 soon.

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