Sunday, June 24, 2007

On the Road with Baker, Weber and an Armful of Juice

The other day I had the afternoon off, so I slid on down to the Film Forum to see Let’s Get Lost, a film by Bruce Weber about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I knew very little about Baker, mostly because I had taped David Wilcox singing “Chet Baker’s Unsung Swan Song” on the World Café years ago, and played that tape quite a bit in those pre-mp3 days. One look at the lyrics will tell you he was addicted to drugs of some sort; Wilcox’s explanation that preceded the song told me he’d been found dead outside the window of his Amsterdam hotel, an apparent suicide.

What the reviews of Let’s Get Lost told me was that Baker was the embodiment of 1950s pre-rock-n-roll cool.

The film opens itself up slowly. Shot entirely in black and white, it’s a mix of head-on interviews, archival footage, and sequences shot in present-day (1987) Los Angeles, as Baker moves through the city like a spectre with an entourage of young, beautiful people surrounding him. (I later learned they were hired for the film, and include Chris Isaak and Lisa Marie.) These scenes are dreamlike, with the group running on the beach, goofing around in bumper cars, and listening to Baker play in a studio session. (Out of the group, Isaak seems to be the only one who knows jazz; he and Baker sing a brief melody in a barroom booth todgether at one point.) One shot, which the film returns to again and again, is of Baker in the back of a convertible, hurtling through the Los Angeles night with a beauty on each side of him. As the women cuddle closer to him, it’s impossible to read his craggy face. Is he enjoying the drive, and the company, or is he just stoned? I was left with the impression that the man was plunging headlong into death in the most comfortable way he could find.

The archival footage shows Baker in his early days—a hunky dreamboat with a trumpet, playing gorgeous, languid jazz. The point is made that he and his Los Angeles contemporaries rejected the bebop of the east coast, playing simpler, prettier music. Miles Davis went one way, Baker went another. For the most part, jazz followed Davis. That’s the impression I get, anyway, although there’s few things I know less about than jazz.

And the interviews. Baker is interviewed extensively, and his talks about his past elliptically with the velvet-smooth voice that serves him so well when he sings. He’s sometimes evasive, and sometimes just prefers to play his trumpet. You get lost in the lines of his face, so smooth in the old footage, yet grooved with years of addiction and hard living. You can see the beginnings of the effect while he’s still young, in an old Steve Allen Show appearance from 1958. That can’t be age alone changing his face like that. He’s 57 in the movie. He looks 85.

Other people – a photographer who “discovered” him, fellow musicians, a few girlfriends, his third wife, some of his kids – all bring something new to the picture. From almost every perspective but his own, Baker was shifty and undependable. Abuse is mentioned. But Baker somehow keeps them all charmed. Some of the women cat about each other, each seeming to feel that only her claim to Baker is legitimate. The stories they tell about Baker reveal more about themselves than they might like. (A Baker biography mentioned in a recent New York Times article about the film’s revival—one I can’t find online, sorry—says that the film’s strength is this: It’s all jive. Everyone is lying. Could be.)

There’s a moment, late in the film, in which his daughter talks about going into one of his girlfriend’s places, looking for Baker, who’d already lit out. She found the things that mattered most to the girlfriend – jewelry and such, that she’d spoken of to the girl – and steals them, hocking them at a pawn shop for spite. Watching it, all I could think was This man is poison, and poison spreads. But I wonder: Did Bruce Weber recognize this? He clearly loves the man. The film seems flush with hero-worship, but the heel still seeps in around the edges.

It’s almost inevitable that there’ll be a biopic musical, a la Ray or Walk the Line, on Baker someday. His life had so many ups and downs (his teeth were punched out so he couldn’t play for years; he wound up living on welfare and pumping gas) that it’ll fit the formula with few alterations. But where those movies travel the same ground, Let’s Get Lost delves into more troubling places.



Greg! said...

You lucky bastard.
I've never seen Let's get Lost. It's always had something of a mystique about it.

I think a hunk (pardon the pun) of the "hero-worship" tone could perhaps be attributed to some lingering infatuation on Weber's part. If you weren't aware, Bruce Weber's root claim to fame is as a photographer, gorgeous hunky men a specialty. Think those A&F ads from a few years ago -- preternaturally attractive guys in contrivedly homoerotic sitations. That's Bruce Weber.

Baker's like a James Dean who did grow old. I can see how someone with Weber's aesthetic could find him compelling.

Rob S. said...

I wasn't aware of that at all. The perspective certainly informs the movie in retrospect.

I think it's playing until the 28th, so you've got a few more days to catch it if you can make it to NYC.

If not, Wikipedia says:

According to Weber, the film, long out-of-print on home video, will be released on DVD in December 2007.

It's Wikipedia, so who knows if it's good info, but I'm betting it is. I only went there because I expected a DVD release now that the film's been restored. That's usually how these things go. The screening itself is probably more for publicity and to bring funds in for the DVD -- where the real money is.

Greg! said...

True. But there's reason to treasure every opportunity to see something shot in B&W properly projected. I so wish I'd seen Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in a theater instead of on a CRT.