Documentaries

Chet Baker – Let’s Get Lost Documentary

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“What’s the problem here?” The voice, querulous and groggy, emerges from the darkness, aborting a smoky run-through of Elvis Costello’s ‘Almost Blue’. Bruce Weber’s Oscar-nominated documentary concerns itself with the same question: what gnaws at Chet Baker, and just how did the feted pretty boy of the West Coast ‘cool school’ end up such a frail, hollow-cheeked wraith? The most obvious answer is: junk.

As fellow jazz trumpeter and addict Miles Davis observed in his autobiography, “musicians were considered hip in some circles if they shot smack”; the logic being that heroin might bestow some of the genius of Charlie Parker or Miles upon the user.

Though a fine player, Baker may have privately worried that he would never be taken as seriously as Miles (who predictably accused him of aping his licks). More than likely, he thought he needed a poppy or three to keep up: the serial seducer seduced – out of his looks and his teeth (courtesy of an unprompted assault from drug dealers, so he said), though hardly out of talent or charm. Nor intelligence: those baby blues still burn with roving, wily intensity.

A combination of cheekbones and intuitive musicianship (his intimate, androgynene croon being just as potent as his way with a horn) had originally propelled the former Gerry Mulligan Quartet sideman into the pantheon of jazz greats. But arguably it was William Claxton’s famous photos of him relaxing between takes in the studio (“he looked like a Greek God”) that sealed the deal: a classic example of the fully-packaged star. A white one. A very marketable jazz Elvis. Italian B-movie roles and sell-out concerts were his for the taking. By the time Let’s Get Lost first emerged in 1989, he’d accrued a new generation of admirers for whom the legend of Baker’s turbulent rise and fall only added to his cult appeal.

And there is a circularity here: Weber’s studiedly monochromatic profile, all inky shadows and searing white-outs, replete with ‘authentic’ crackles on a modern soundtrack, was released during a decade in which ‘cool’, that most chimerical of concepts, had once again become a commodity, a negative onto which advertising execs and filmmakers etched received, homogenised visions of sleek 1950s style.

Baker is being sold twice over – first by opportunists, second by grave robbers. Albeit, slightly premature ones: unlike James Dean or Neal Cassady, this ‘doomed, beautiful youth’, a living Kerouac creation, was still very much alive at the time Weber dug him up, and the prince-turned-skid-row denizen is not an altogether pretty picture.

A portrait emerges of an arch manipulator who conned his way out the army, then into the hearts of a string of emotionally and physically abused wives, lovers and friends. Fellow trumpet player Jack Sheldon talks of how Chet screwed his girlfriend, literally under his nose, while he wasn’t looking. As in life, in art: here he is again, reducing Natalie Wood to silent orgasms with his playing in 1960’s All The Fine Young Cannibals, while her jealous date smoulders beside her.

“Chet cons people” is the consensus from more than one party. “He has the ability to elicit sympathy – and it’s all a big act.” The story of what happened to Baker’s teeth is similarly dismissed as “Typical Chet, gaining sympathy for himself. Someone kicked his ass for his manipulating ways”.

It’s no surprise to discover that these wounded women, rather than focus on the common enemy, an absent father to children by different mothers, reserve most of their spleen for each other. Ruth Young for instance, Baker’s torch-singing girlfriend for 10 years, is “that bitch

his downfall.” Interviewed separately, Baker lets it all wash over
him. Mainly, because the adoring, highly partisan Weber (for whom Baker’s iconic, homoerotic appeal was obviously meat and potatoes) hardly ever gives him a good grilling, happy to let the former jailbird seduce him along with everybody else.

“Sometimes Chet would tell a story and we would be spellbound, but the next day we’d find out it wasn’t even true,” says Weber, who would simply prefer to be in love, and fascinated, with his quarry. “It was about being illusioned and disillusioned and illusioned again by a hero”. The irony, of course, is that the filmmaker, whose hugely influential black-and-white fashion photography exemplifies a certain 1980s aesthetic, seems so oblivious to the fact he’s being taken for a ride: the manipulator manipulated.

This is a swooning postcard from one poser to another, woozily segueing as if in an opiate stupor between interviews, verite-style recreations, archive footage and new studio performances (these latter scenes all but nudge us to check out how much Chris Isaak and Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea resemble Weber’s hero). The approach might well echo jazz’s free-form schematics, but unkinder descriptions might also include ‘rambling and shapeless’.

The music, of course, is sublime, and it’s as immaculately framed as you’d expect – though the best moments are those apparently caught on the fly; the unstaged and unframed: Baker in a nightclub patiently indulging young, wide-eyed jazz acolytes with warmth and humour; his appearance at a Cannes music festival. Pleads the promoter (after Baker stops playing because people aren’t listening), “So many people want to hear you, and may never get the chance again!” Comes the deadpan reply, “I ain’t dead yet.”

That would happen a few months after filming ended, on Friday 13 May 1988. Aged 58, he had fallen out of a second-floor Amsterdam hotel window, hitting the pavement like a bum note. The local press reported that a 30-year-old man had been found with a trumpet. Even in death, he seduced them out of truth. – IMDB

Paul

January 16th, 2014

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Author: Paul Thomson