[JPL] TERRENCE RAFFERTY on Chet Baker

Lazaro Vega wblv.wblu.fm at gmail.com
Tue Jun 5 13:52:24 EDT 2007


http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/movies/03raff.html?_r=2&oref=slogin

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June 3, 2007
A Jazzman So Cool You Want Him Frozen at His Peak
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
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.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company


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