[JPL] A Jazzman So Cool You Want Him Frozen at His Peak

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Jun 4 17:20:16 EDT 2007

June 3, 2007
A Jazzman So Cool You Want Him Frozen at His Peak 
AT the very end of Bruce Weber’s seductive, unsettling
“Let’s Get Lost,” the movie’s subject, the
semi-legendary cool-jazz trumpeter and singer Chet
Baker, looks back on the shooting of the film and
says, in a quavery, almost tearful voice, “It was a
dream.” Although in the preceding two hours Mr. Baker
has delivered a fair number of dubiously reliable
utterances, you’re inclined to believe him on this one
because that’s what the movie feels like to the viewer
too. It’s nominally a documentary (Oscar-nominated in
that category in 1989), but it documents something
that only faintly resembles waking reality. And Mr.
Baker, who wanders through “Let’s Get Lost” with the
eerie deliberateness of a somnambulist, appears to be
a man who knows a thing or two about dreams.

Film Forum, which gave the movie its New York premiere
18 years ago, is reviving it for a three-week run
(beginning Friday) in a restored 35-millimeter print,
and Mr. Weber’s black-and-white hipster fantasia is as
beautiful, and as nutty, as ever. Now, as in 1989, the
filmmaker seems bent on stopping time in its tracks,
preserving the illusion that nothing important has
changed since the early 1950s, when Mr. Baker was a
handsome young man with a sweet-toned horn, the great
white hope of West Coast jazz. 

He doesn’t look the same of course; actually he looks
like hell. When “Let’s Get Lost” was shot, Mr. Baker
was in his late 50s, and after 30-plus years of
dedicated substance abuse (he wasn’t picky about the
substance, though heroin was generally his first
choice) his face is ravaged, cadaverous — groovy in
entirely the wrong way. He often appears to be having
some difficulty remaining awake, even while he’s
performing, whispering standards like “My Funny
Valentine” at tempos so languid that the songs kind of
swirl and hover in the air like cigarette smoke until
they finally just drift away.

The really peculiar thing about “Let’s Get Lost” is
that its subject’s physical decrepitude and
narcoleptic performance style seem not to bother Mr.
Weber at all. This isn’t one of those documentaries
that poignantly contrast the beauty and energy of
youth with the sad debilities of age. Far from it. The
picture cuts almost randomly between archival clips
and 1987 footage to create a sort of perverse
continuum, a frantic insistence that the essence of
Chetness is unvarying, eternal. And you can’t always
see much difference between the young Mr. Baker and
the old. Even in his prime his cool was so extreme
that he often looked oddly spectral, like someone
trapped in a block of ice.

Chet Baker’s brand of frosty hipness was, in the ’50s,
considered a sexy alternative to that era’s prevailing
ethos of earnest, striving respectability (at least
until rock ’n’ roll, which was more fun, came along).
Maybe you had to have grown up in that nervous decade,
as Mr. Weber did, to find Mr. Baker’s ostentatious
laid-backness subversive, to imbue it with so much
bad-boy allure. Mr. Weber, who is also a fashion
photographer, is a glamorizer both by trade and by
nature, and when something imprints itself as strongly
on his fantasy life as the image of the young Chet
Baker clearly did, he holds onto it tightly —
cherishes it, embellishes it, uses it to transport
himself back to his own hard-dreaming youth. “Let’s
Get Lost” is his “Remembrance of Things Past,” with
this strung-out trumpeter as his madeleine.

And what Mr. Weber winds up doing in this original,
deeply eccentric movie is giving Mr. Baker a luxurious
fantasy world to live in, a holiday condo of the
imagination, where age and time are utterly
irrelevant. The filmmaker supplies his weary but
grateful subject with a ready-made entourage of
shockingly good-looking young people (Chris Isaak and
Lisa Marie among them) who, in shifting combinations,
drink with him, ride in snazzy convertibles with him,
giggle with him on a bumper-car ride and gaze on him
reverently while he croons a breathy tune in the
recording studio. Mr. Weber takes him to the Cannes
Film Festival, where paparazzi surround him and he
sings “Almost Blue” for celebrities at a glittery
party. No wonder Mr. Baker gets misty-eyed at the end
of the movie. The dream he’s been dreaming, courtesy
of his devoted director, is the sweetest one a
performer could ask for in his declining years: the
dream that he still matters.

Chet Baker hadn’t mattered for a while when Mr. Weber
was filming him. The movie’s release rekindled a bit
of interest in his music, partly because he was dead
by the time it came out: In 1988, at the age of 58, he
was found on the street in Amsterdam, having
apparently fallen from the window of his hotel. He’s
practically forgotten now. 

Jazz history hasn’t been kind to him; his talent,
though real, was thin. Unlike his rival Miles Davis,
he persisted, with a stubbornness that suggests a
fairly serious failure of imagination, in playing the
cool style long past the point at which it had begun
to sound mannered and even a little silly. When you
hear Mr. Baker’s stuff, you can’t help picturing his
ideal listener as one of those lupine swingers of the
Playboy era, decked out in a velvet smoking jacket and
loading smooth platters onto the hi-fi to get a hot
chick in the mood for love. The ’50s die before your
eyes in “Let’s Get Lost.” It feels like the last stand
of something that may not have been worth fighting for
in the first place.

In a funny way, the movie gives the lie to the
nostalgic illusions it seems to want to embody, just
because the construction of this fragile, faded
jazzman as the epitome of cool is so elaborate and so
obviously effortful. It’s killing work to be this
cool. When Mr. Weber starts interviewing people who
loved the musician not from afar, as he did, but from
too close — his bitter wife, a few girlfriends, three
of his neglected kids — you see how tough it’s been:
how many drugs it took, how much willful indifference,
how much hollowing out of whatever self may once have
inhabited the pale frame of Chet Baker.

The enduring fascination of “Let’s Get Lost,” the
reason it remains powerful even now, when every value
it represents is gone, is that it’s among the few
movies that deal with the mysterious, complicated
emotional transactions involved in the creation of pop
culture — and with the ambiguous process by which
performers generate desire. Mr. Baker isn’t so much
the subject of this picture as its pretext: He’s the
front man for Mr. Weber’s meditations on image making
and its discontents. 

If you want the true story of Chet Baker, you’d do
better to look up James Gavin’s superb, harrowing 2002
biography, “Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet
Baker,” where you can also find, in the words of a
pianist named Hal Galper, perhaps the most perceptive
review of Mr. Weber’s slippery movie. “I though it was
great,” Mr. Galper says, “because it was so jive.
Everybody’s lying, including Chet. You couldn’t have
wanted a more honest reflection of him.” That’s “Let’s
Get Lost,” to the life: the greatest jive movie, or
maybe the jivest great movie, ever made.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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