11 June 2007 | MisterWhiplash
even if the music doesn't strike you completely, the man and the methods of film-making are staggeringly intriguing
Bruce Weber's obscure documentary (currently on two screens at New York's Film Forum) on Chet Baker is the best possible way for those who aren't terribly familiar with his work or who he was- like myself- and I'm sure will more than please his avid fans out there. For the former, Baker is one of the "cool" west coast jazz pioneers, who defied some expectations while still being dismissed by many east coast (NY) jazz aficionados. Truth be told, Baker isn't entirely my cup of tea (very talented, of course, though I won't be listening to him as frequently as Coltrane or Parker or even Armstrong). This out of the way, Baker the man is an endlessly fascinating individual, one of those artistic forces who made life a hell for those around him, but also was a real intuitive musician, who when not trying to fix his dental problem, or drug problem, or problem with the law in other countries, he could play his trumpet or sing his soft melodies any time, anywhere. It's a major credit to him that the quality of his performances of the period of the film's present tense (1987-88) is not too far from that of his prime in the 50s and 60s. But Weber isn't simply out to show him performing his songs. Like a jazzman himself, Weber is into improvisation with his choice in jagged but smooth angles with the camera.
Aside from the intrigue that comes in showing Weber interviewing his past friends and fellow musicians (some who have simple stories like "he could play much faster than me, etc etc", and others that are darkly funny, like how he could have sex with a fellow musician's girlfriend in the dark without the other musician knowing after a five second lapse), ex-wives and female counterparts (it runs the gamut- those who care deeply about him, but have been hurt, and even a singer who is a bit more than bitter, but wise, to Baker's ways), and even his kids, we see the man himself with no punches pulled. Baker, with a face as chiseled as Clint Eastwood's and with twice the number of stories to tell, and a slightly wavering way of talking where one's not sure if he might slip into sleep mid-exposition. We see him talk of his time in the army, where he disarmingly (no pun intended) got out of duty while on a close-call avoiding the nut-house. We see his tales of being busted in Europe and spending over a year in jail. He even talks in a bittersweet tone about his kids and about fallen musicians and friends of his.
Most captivating, though, is the issue of his teeth, which becomes Weber's Rashomon tool of technique. It's not enough that Weber already slips so well into an aesthetic that I've rarely seen anywhere else in documentaries, where we get a plethora of images in several seconds *without* montage, and scenes of Baker with friends/kids/admirers (Flea is one of them) knocking around town at night that are real but close to feeling like it shouldn't be this real. Weber also throws in the crucial element of Baker as a multi-layered man with more than one persona to him, notably to his ex-wives. He tells the story of how he got his teeth knocked out, fighting with five black guys in a bad drug deal situation on the streets of LA. It sounds simple enough, as one of those wacky but dead-serious stories those in the jazz world, or just music in general, end up having when dependent on drugs (in this case heroin). But one girlfriend/singer says something else, that it had to do with Baker being given a specific 'lesson', to "take away what's most important", which was his mouth. But then even another says something completely different, at least I think so, and it's here that Weber makes Let's Get Lost such a complex peek (just a peek) into this man.
To be sure, there are times questions are asked and the response is just "lets not go into that", which is fair. Yet one comes away with Let's Get Lost with a pure impressing on who Chet Baker was, in a sense; he's a legendary musician in some circles, but also spent years on welfare when he couldn't play; he had one wife who was half Pakistani and half-Indian, who is rarely mentioned in the film; the kids don't show up much into the film until the last section, with more time spent around the mother(s) than Chet himself. But it all adds up to a sense, which is all that Weber could really get. It's cool as a good drink, and all about a man I won't soon forget.