20 June 2007

Let's Get Lost (1988)

Directed by: Bruce Weber

Grade: B-

If Louis Malle's formally efficient Elevator to the Gallows (1958) announced, with its Miles Davis soundtrack and slick black-and-white Frenchness, the birth of the cool—albeit perhaps a few years late—then Let's Get Lost, a documentary as sleepy as a standard record by its subject Chet Baker, documents its death. When Baker debuted in the '50s, he was the James Dean, the Jack Kerouac of the jazz scene; with his steel-blue eyes & dark-brown hair, he had charisma to spare, he oozed a virile magnetism. "He was trouble and he was beautiful," a woman remarks in voice-over, summing it up quite well; "I was attracted to him photographically," explains photographer Will Claxton, "and the camera was too." And so was the whole world. Not only that, but he could play as well! As one unseen narrator reminisces, Charlie Parker once warned his brethren (Davis, etc.) that there was this white cat out in California who was going to give them a lot of trouble; record producer Dick Bock says Chet sounded like the history of jazz all rolled into one, channeling the gamut from Louis to Bix to Bunny Berrigan.

Let's Get Lost finds Chet Baker not in his glorious heyday of the '50s but decades later in 1987, still out in the blazing California sunshine that inspired his sun-baked sound, but his face now ravaged by heroin addiction. (He bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin near the end of Beetlejuice, as the séance summons his rapidly aging body to the dinner table.) Chet's fifty-seven but he looks at least eighty four. "How strange, the change from major to minor," as says the Cole Porter tune "Everytime We Say Goodbye", sung by Chet in the film. His senescent voice trembles a bit more on the whole notes than it used to, though the timbre of his trumpet, at least, is still as crisp and smooth as ever. Chris Isaak, decked out as something of a '50s throwback, makes a cameo curiously hanging out at the recording studio, serving as a pointed contrast to Chet's age, as well as a reminder of how inspirational Mr. Baker was, if not musically (those kids and their dang rock n' roll) than at least in terms of image and style. As Mr. Baker recalls, after going on French leave while enlisted in the army, "the next day half the [army] band went AWOL," a testament to the power of influence he wielded even then.

Bruce Weber's desultory film is the meandering visual equivalent of beat verse, with the obscure but deliberate intention of a jazzy improv. There's no story or narrative arc to speak of; Let's Get Lost, a sauntering character portrait, just gets lost. Intercut into the '80s footage of Chet—often appearing to be on the nod, as he comes across as slow, weary and inarticulate—are talking-head-provided reminiscences, sounded over an inventory of vivified still photographs and various other documentary media. "Everybody has a story about Chet Baker," the director himself remarks in voice-over, and Let's Get Lost, an amalgamation of them, turns into Weber's.

Shot, by Jeff Preiss, in a noirish black-and-white as woefully outdated as Baker's obsolete sound, and edited with complexity and lyrical grace by Angelo Corrao, there are many staggeringly artful moments, such as a long scene in which Weber plays the sound of a man discussing the variegated styles of jazz over footage of puppies playfully fighting on the Santa Monica street. Within the sunny, smoky haze of the California summer—the setting is driven home by the prevalence of backdrop beaches, palm trees, chicks and cars—the film bops around like a stoned daydream. As an exploration of its subject it's appreciably thorough, as Weber lets all the players in Chet's life sound-off, even allowing quite a bit of unflattering stories to be told in an attempt to gently tease out the real man from the consciously constructed facade. In fact, as the film rambles on, the stories get increasingly grim. "Did he disappoint you as a son?" Weber asks Mrs. Baker, who, after a reluctant pause, joylessly admits, "yes". "It's a no-win situation with a junkie," Chet's on-and-off girlfriend Diane explains. By most accounts, Chet Baker was something of a conniving cad, but he was often easily forgiven because of the beauty of his music, not to mention his alluringly handsome face, bubbling with repressed sexuality. Weber aims to disentangle the myth from the man, leaving as honest a representation of Chet Baker as possible on the screen.

But while Let's Get Lost is easy to admire, it's tougher to enjoy. Weber seems to take for granted the audience's knowledge of jazz, jazz history, and Chet history by failing to clarify a lot of the information proffered by the interviewees, making Let's Get Lost hard to keep up with, particularly as Chet's many wives and girlfriends dizzyingly blend into one another. Let's Get Lost could be said to be a bit too thorough, especially as it goes through several false endings; if it's not exactly self-indulgent, it's certainly Chet-indulgent. As girlfriend Ruth Young explains it, Chet inspires a mix of "love and fascination", which would've been an appropriate alternate title, particularly in Weber, who lets himself get a little carried away.

Weber might care too much, but it's a counterbalance to the apathetic response Chet gets elsewhere. "People couldn't care less about the music," he laments after a set in France, but who could blame them as they're watching a drifting, junk-broken man who, at that point or in that state, can't sing for shit. Shortly after filming, Chet would be found dead, apparently having fallen out of the window of an Amsterdam hotel. With him went the cool, whose funeral took place long before it was documented in this alternately attractive, plaintive and soporific film. When Weber started filming cool wasn't dying, it was dead; and so, essentially, was Chet Baker.


Clayton L. White said...

Sounds like another mediocre doc that could have really been something. Still, I'm glad to see more docs popping up that focus on musicians that are more, I don't want to say obscure, but musicians that aren't as well remembered by the general public. A couple years ago, we got the Townes Van Zandt film, and I hope that we get more like this. You know what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I would say this one is more failed than mediocre, which is more respectable than the just "meh" docs you see so many of nowadays; this one is still pretty strong in a lot of regards, not least of all in its cinematicality (the primary shortcoming of so many recent docs). It's just too unfocused to work well, but still very artistic and laudable in its own ways...unlike, say, Who Killed the Electric Car?