The Reeler


June 8, 2007

Let's Get Lost

Chet Baker documentary brings the pain, and not much else

There’s a peculiar strain of American pop mythology which lionizes the beautiful loser -- the talented but self-destructive soul whose prodigious legacy is enhanced rather than destroyed by drugs and drink. It's an effect I may not understand, but the eternal allure of Miles Davis, John Cassavetes et al. is hard to deny. Let’s Get Lost takes the idea to an extreme. It’s the kind of documentary that wouldn’t exist if there were only a musical legacy to work with. You have to learn to separate a man’s work from who he is, suggests one ex-lover, but director Bruce Weber ignores that advice in Let's Get Lost, his portrait of Chet Baker.

The gist of Baker’s musical appeal comes through the testimony of others: Baker emerged in the ‘50s as an original voice in the so-called “cool jazz” strain. His melancholy, understated trumpet lines rejected bebop in favor of the long and drawn-out. Weber’s impressionistic portrait scores itself to two hours of the stuff; it suits the mood of Baker’s life story, all of which seems to come, like the music, from a lonely place. Some of the assertions in Baker’s favor are downright bizarre -- one person suggests that Baker’s melancholy sound is the West Coast influence of a sunny existence on beaches. Worse yet is screenwriter Lawrence Trimble’s bizarre claim that he never knew anyone who owned a Buddy Holly record in the '50s -- why in the world, he asks, do people associate the 50s with rock? It was all about jazz. Whatever.

The man’s life is a different story. In his youth, Baker was the archetypal American badass: “He was bad, he was trouble, and he was beautiful,” laughs an ex-lover. Trimble pegs his appeal similarly: “There weren’t too many anti-social role models in the Eisenhower era.” But Baker ran himself down quickly; marriages came and went, heroin became a habit (a year after the film was shot in 1987, Baker mysteriously plunged to his death from a hotel window), and -- perhaps most damagingly -- a rough beating destroyed all of his teeth, forcing Baker to re-learn playing with dentures. The contrast between the youthful Baker and the 57-year-old is predictably shocking: With a mustache he looks like the near-death Charles Bronson, and without it like a cadaverous Willem Dafoe. In her interview, his mother looks like the younger of the two.

How interesting you find all this depends on how interesting you find two undifferentiated hours of straight-up adulation. Baker’s appeal is his life’s failure, and trying to understand him -- as Weber does in tiresome detail, pushing and prodding his ex-lovers to recount their affairs’ downturn in monotonous, endless detail -- is the film’s true business, generous performance snippets aside. It's a difficult fascination to understand; unlike, say, Cassavetes, Baker isn’t much of a raconteur or personality. His youthful vigor and ability to fake his way through any situation is often noted, but the old Baker speaks slowly, in a torrent of nostalgia. For Baker, the act of reeling off names from the past is perhaps even more evocative than what the names are; the film exists in a permanent twilight, a cigarette-smoke haze. Let’s Get Lost is too obsessed with the life of the man to focus solely on the music, but what's found there is just a litany of stories that are more sad than funny. Allow me to pump up the indie rock jams and suggest Dig! instead; that’s the true face of instructive self-destruction.

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