Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Let’s Get Lost (USA) (DOC) Directed by Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber’s films have a signature look - lush, high contrast black and white with scenes that sometimes seem as if they’re solely comprised of a series of expertly posed still shots. No surprise perhaps as Weber is best known as a fashion photographer. As he did with Oregon boxer (and Calvin Klein model) Andy Minsker in Broken Noses(made the year before), here he focuses on a single individual - jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and poses him in a series of locations (driving in a convertible; at the beach; at an amusement park; at The 1987 Cannes Film Festival), weaving them with voice over, photographs (including the famous William Claxton ones) interviews, and music (much of it Baker’s) to great effect.
Baker was fifty six when Weber began making the film in 1987, and by 1989 he’d be dead. His middle-aged, wrinkled, sunken, hard-luck face is juxtaposed throughout the film with clips and photos of his fresh-scrubbed, high cheek-boned, youthful self. Imbued with Baker’s smooth though mournful music and haunting tenor vocals there is an air of sadness permeating the film. For all his professional achievement, this is not a life lived well or happily, and the regrets are inextricably linked with the main subject’s recollections of his own past.
Chesney Baker was born in Oklahoma in 1929. His family moved to California when he was ten years old. His father, who he describes as distant and cold, was a country western musician. He bought young Chet a trumpbone, which was too big for him to play, and then a trumpet, and within days the boy with a natural ear was playing his instrument with the skill of someone who’d had years of lessons.
Baker was a heroin addict for the majority of his adult years, a fact that is openly discussed in the film. As the film goes on it becomes evident that Baker is still an active addict, and there is more than one interview where he slurs his words or nods out. At one point Weber asks him about the best time of his life and Baker goes on to describe getting high by mixing heroin and cocaine. Like most addicts, Baker inflicted more than his share of pain on those who loved him, including his mother (who admits, with great difficulty, that he has been a disappointment as a son), his past loves, and four children.
It is to Weber’s credit that he doesn’t shy away from allowing those in Baker’s life to share in the telling. He is described by still bitter ex girlfriend, singer Ruth Young (herself a long time drug abuser), as being a manipulator and con man whose story about himself is always self-aggrandizing, and thus circumspect. She talks about an incident when Baker had his teeth knocked out, and says the real story is that Baker owed drug dealers and was beaten up because of it (Baker claims he was simply robbed while going to buy drugs). His second wife, British native Carol, the mother of three of his children (Paul; Missy; and Dean), talk about him blowing in and out of their lives whenever he felt like it, never telling them when he was coming or going.
Long time girlfriend Diane Vavre is in many of the scenes with Baker, but even she describes him as being untrustworthy, manipulative, and abusive, stating at one point that as long as you understand Chet’s a junkie you’re okay. Paul, Missy, and Dean (in their twenties at the time of filming), speak about living in small town Oklahoma, and seeing their father only on rare occasions. At one point one of them jokes that someone should tell their father they need money. We never hear from his oldest child, son Chesney Aftab, with second wife Halima, though Carol and his other children talk about Chesney coming to visit them and always managing to miss Chet’s visits, a fact they say upsets the young man who hadn’t had much contact with his biological father.
Though he died tragically in Amsterdam, having fallen from a hotel window, Baker survived longer than many of his fellow drug-addicted Jazz contemporaries, undergoing the loss of his teeth, which cost him years of playing trumpet (he eventually re-learned to play with dentures), failed marriages, and various drug related arrests. His professional life included playing with Charlie Parker, who had a hand in discovering him, being part of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with whom he made some of his most famous recordings (including My Funny Valentine); being named top performer of the year in the fifties; long stints in Paris, and other cities across Europe, where he was wildly popular; and even an acting appearance in an Italian film (he was also jailed in Italy for possession). He was too the basis for the lead character Chad Bixby in the 1960 filmThe Fine Young Cannibals (directed by Michael Anderson), played by Robert Wagner.
Although opinions on the measure of Baker’s talent vary, he is at least in the discussion by most experts as one of the greatest jazz trumpeters who ever lived. His style was an embodiment of the cool, California sound, a fluid style thought to have arisen in relation to the temperate climate. Though Baker did not read music, or at least only had a rudimentary understanding of it, and though he did not compose, he had a tremendous ear for music, and a knack for being able to pick up nearly anything after listening to it once. His underrated voice had a kind of singular quality, mirroring a mellifluous instrument in some ways as he extended certain notes.
Though Weber, an openly gay man, is clearly objectifying Baker to some extent, admittedly having been initially drawn to a photo of him (as he likely was with boxer Minsker), there is perhaps something fitting about the treatment. Long after his death, Baker continues to enjoy iconographic stature, a fact that is likely attributable to several factors (including his race and talent), not the least of which being the way he looked. It is slightly odd though to see Minsker, Baker, and singer Chris Isaak (a Baker enthusiast) at a restaurant table in Cannes, looking a bit like the same person at three different ages.
The Academy Award nominated Let’s Get Lost has long been unavailable on DVD, although it has recently appeared on The Sundance Channel on cable.