June 7, 2007

Lost Once More

Bruce Weber on discovering (and rediscovering) Chet Baker in the newly restored Let's Get Lost

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Lost Boy: Chet Baker, the subject of Bruce Weber's documentary Let's Get Lost (Photo: William Claxton; courtesy Little Bear Films/Film Forum)

Bruce Weber assured me the title wasn't supposed to be literal: Let's Get Lost, the famed fashion photographer's impressionistic 1988 study of Chet Baker, revived the iconic jazz trumpeter's music, reaffirmed his influence for a generation of musicians half his age, scored an Oscar nod for best documentary and then vanished from circulation within five years. It's the type of scorching slow burn Baker himself was famous for and that Weber evoked in his crisp black-and-white during the last year of Baker's life.

As such, Let's Get Lost's resurrection this weekend at Film Forum is a full-on event; its saga tracing the stunningly handsome Oklahoma boy's journey from progenitor of Los Angeles "cool jazz" of the 1950s to heroin-addicted, absentee father to weathered, battered comeback kid is as crystalline a portrait of its era as any. Drawing from interviews, archival footage, performance video and a fly-on-the-wall camera eye, Weber depicts a soul haunted by years as well as artistic and literal heirs haunted by that very soul. "You can't really rely on Chet," says his confidant Diane Vavra, "and if you know that, you can pull through." Charcoal skies yawn over L.A.; Baker's music simmers below it.

Weber spoke with The Reeler this week about discovering (and rediscovering) Chet Baker, restoring Let's Get Lost and what a difference 20 years makes.

THE REELER: Let's Get Lost hasn't been seen anywhere since 1993. Why has it been out of circulation for so long?

BRUCE WEBER: When we first made the film, we were just sort of pulling our resources together to finish it. And I think there's 50-something music cues in this -- which means there's a lot of music. So we worked really hard to pay for a certain amount of years of music rights. We wanted to get world rights in perpetuity. So we just took it off the market so we could do that, and that's what we did. That's why it wasn't out for a long time. RCA was doing the record and they kind of closed their record division. The CD wasn't out anymore. And then the video was done by them, too. So we're just sort of starting all over again with it. It's kind of fun taking on a project like this and giving it a new life.

R: How did you get to know Chet and decide you wanted to make a film about him?

BW: Growing up I got a record called Let's Get Lost, and I saw a photograph (of Baker) that I really loved on the cover, and I didn't know anything about him. I had a big jazz collection, but I didn't know that much about West Coast jazz. I was more of an East Coast person. So I got this, and then years later I met Bill Claxton. I realized that Bill had taken those pictures and then I loved that record I carried it with me all over the place. Chet was in New York City many, many years later, and so I went to see him and we made a short film for, like, three minutes of an Oscar Levant song called "Blame it on My Youth." Then he sort of like joined my family in a way, and we made a movie.

R: There's a certain level of trust, though, that needs to be established between an interviewer and a subject. At what point did you realize that you really could make a documentary about him?

BW: Well, we worked in a loose way: When we had money and Chet was around, then we would film. When we didn't, we didn't. Sometimes we would work for a couple of days and then not work for two or three months. But during those two or three months we still kept in contact; we were very, very close. I have whole kind of group of people who work on my films, and we're really tight with each other. And it was like a family. I think Chet liked that; he knew everybody really well, and they all kept in touch with him. So he felt pretty comfortable with us because we felt comfortable with him, and we were really open with him.

R: What about dealing with his family and establishing that same comfort level with them?

BW: We didn't really have a lot of contact with his family until we went to Oklahoma to film them. People always ask me these questions about his family and what they think, what they thought... All I know is what we thought. What they thought I can’t tell you; it's different all the time. I think that Carol was trying to get a film project going with Chet, and we wish her really well. We were good with them; we said what we were going to do. We were upfront and honest and right there. And we tried to paint a very real picture of them -- but also one that's very vulnerable.

Chet Baker circa 1987(Photo: Bruce Weber; courtesy Little Bear Films/Film Forum)

R: But there is also the instance when you ask his mother if she is disappointed in him, yet you give her the alternative to not answer. That's an unusual approach for a documentarian to take.

BW: You know, it's interesting you say that. What happened was that when you make a film and all these people go, "Can't you make a documentary on me?" And you say to them, "Do you really want to?" You know? Because you kind of have to go through people's drawers and closets, and you try to be really respectful. The reason I asked that question to Chet's mom was that Chet talked about it a lot -- that his mother would say, "Why can't you be like that Dave Brubeck? He's married, and he has kids and he's playing colleges..." I kind of asked more from that standpoint because Chet was always talking about how his parents didn't understand him and they wanted him to have a different kind of life. They were very idealistic about the life of a jazz person. And it's funny; Carol says in the film, "Oh, I hope nobody's going to see this." They would always say that to me: "Is anybody going to see this if I say this?" Well, you know, then don't say it. You know what I mean?

But we arrived in Oklahoma with the utmost respect for them. We bought them food, we took care of them, I mean, it was... They called us when Chet passed away and they said, "Do you want to come and film the funeral?" I said no, but everybody on the whole crew got together and put money together and we all paid for them to go out to L.A. to be with Chet and put them up in a hotel and everything.

R: There are other offerings like that as well -- your offer to purchase Chet's methadone near the end of the film, for example. You became very active in Chet's life, in a way. Was there ever a limit to that that you had to impose or enforce?

BW: I think when you approach somebody about making a film, it's like bumping into them at a bar. You sort of end up going home together, and you're having this affair, and that's hopefully what filmmaking is like. And then when you go into post-production, it'a little like you got married. From there, it's like you get a divorce. We were just very close to him; he wasn't just a person we were making a film about. He was part of our group.

R: You mentioned Bill Claxton's photos and their influence. Between Jeff Preiss' cinematography and your work as a photographer, to what degree did those images influence you as a filmmaker and the visual story you wanted to tell?

: I always felt in Bill's pictures -- and in my own work and Jeff's work -- that feeling that there's something wonderful that happens in front of the camera when the people on the other side have a feeling for each other. It can be one of respect, one of love, one of desire, one of awe or fear, even. Or dislike. So I really felt this aliveness in Bill's photographs, and I liked the fact that he ... I was looking at a picture that he did with Chet and his first wife Halema, and he captured such a rare moment of intimacy. They had a big influence on me, especially more on my film work.

R: And in the film, Claxton talks about he was "shocked" by the way Chet looked when he revisited him all those years later. When you first met Chet, were you as shocked? Or maybe even compelled?

BW: Well, when I first saw him, I was shocked at the way he looked because I had never seen him in person until the time when I first saw him on Fifth Avenue and 57th street, when he was in New York before we made the film. But the more and more I got to know Chet, the more and more that Chet Baker that one knew came back. To me he was still handsome, but in a different way than when he was young.

R: The structural and technical approach in Let's Get Lost is really remarkable; you don't have those panning close-ups of stills, but instead these kinds of handheld, kinetic collages. What was the process of sorting out your technique and adapting to the medium?

BW: I really like documentaries that are very internal, and I like it that sometimes when you're making a portrait of somebody, and you're telling a story, I like it that it's not so linear. One of my favorite moments -- one of the truest senses of really Chet and what he's like -- is when Jeff and I were hanging out in Venice beach and all the puppies were running around in the alley. You hear the musicians talk about the old days: that whole West Coast kind of laid-back guy who went sailing and surfing and deep-sea diving off Catalina, and yet played this cool, laid-back jazz.

The way those dogs act with each other, and just the fact that they lived in a box and they were living in the back of a car -- it said to me a lot about Chet and his music, the sun and everything. I just felt like sometimes you find things in daily life that really explain people without them being there

R: You focus for a little bit on the intergenerational play between Chet and guys like Flea and Chris Isaak. How have you observed that sort of relationship continue and change over the years?

BW: Yeah -- a lot of people. There's a young musician in New York who plays jazz, and he idolizes Chet so much. He tries to sing like him and play like them. I keep seeing it all the times in different musicians and different kinds of musicians. A while ago I was talking to Elvis Costello; we were talking about "Almost Blue" and I was laughing with him because I remembered the night that he came to a screening and he was sort of hiding behind the water cooler because he was really shy. I noticed him there and I welcomed him to come and sit down. He was a big fan of Chet's and really loved his music and really loved the way he did "Almost Blue." I see it happening, and I hope more people enjoy a lot of the good things that Chet did; I think he was a great musician. One of the most important things for us in making this film was for people not to forget him and to really remember something about him which was probably the most important thing in his life: that he really played the trumpet beautifully, and he sang beautifully.

R: The film is 20 years old, which, for critics and viewers, is kind of a convenient milestone for revisiting titles. It's not always like that for filmmakers, though. What are your impressions when you look back two decades later?

BW: (Laughs) Well, now it seems more like a home movie to me, and I like that because that was my first intent in making the film that way visually. I kind of like the freedom that was used in it, and the fact that we just making a film on a guy we were all in love with. You know? It wasn't much more serious than that. We really just wanted to find out more about him and appreciate him.

The only sad thing is that we always dreamed that he would be with us, and we'd be sitting on the beach somewhere with him, and he'd be all tan and have a beautiful sports car. His CD's would be out in stores. He'd have a little house down in Venice Beach, probably, living with his girlfriend. I think we missed that: We missed the aftermath of making the film and being able to come back to the person in it -- sort of giving them a hug.

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Comments (2)

so glad to see this interview. saw the movie last night and was blown away by it.so glad to see this. will never listen to chets music in the same old way again.
loved the way the documentary was made.
different and so so revealing.

Chet Baker had that pure jazz tone. Like all the great musicians like Charlie Parker Yard Bird. Buddy Rich Max Roach. All the greats had the best qualities. Musicians come around and try to copy and emulate but the real heroes like Chet Baker Can never ever be duplicated. Also I tend to like the l953 Early Chet Baker More. Tell you
Why ??? it had the best sounds because electronics did not interfere. Everything back in the fifties was accoustic. Any way Chet Baker always had that special jazz tone. Love you Chet.

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