The View From Here

Chet Baker - Let's Get Lost

Michael Bonner

We were chatting the other day in the office about music documentaries, on the back of a forthcoming doc celebrating Arthur Lee and Love. The consensus we reached was that, often, music docs seem not to utilize the same language as other documentaries, or even movies, do; the results often frustrating affairs, often borderline inept in their rather simplistic "point and shoot" technique.

Which brings me, in a rather windy way, to Bruce Weber’s 1988 doc on Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost, that’s due a theatrical re-release in the UK in June, and a DVD release shortly after.

Weber is an American photographer whose work you might have spotted in Rolling Stone or GQ, or more likely you’ll know him for his black and white ad campaigns during the 1980s for Calvin Klein. A huge fan of Baker, Weber filmed him towards the end of his life, in and around Santa Monica, intercutting this interview with archive footage of Baker at his peak in the 1950s, and charting his decline into heroin addiction.

“He was bad, he was trouble, he was beautiful,” observes one of his many ex-wives early in the film. Certainly, any romantic myth that exists around Baker has its origins in the extraordinary black and white photographs and footage from the time. He was a beautiful, sensual-looking man, radiating Gatsby-cool, always surrounded by “beautiful cars, beautiful girls.” Which makes the state he’s in when Weber films him all the more heartbreaking. Sunken cheeks, paper-thin skin and missing his front teeth (they were smashed out when a drug deal went bad), he has the haunted look of a man in terminal decline, the kind of figure you’d expect to see propping up a Tijuana bar in a Peckinpah movie.

I can’t profess to be an expert of Baker, so excuse me if I don’t get too far down the musicology route here. Baker was as indigenous to jazz as the Beach Boys later were to rock’n’roll, both products of the sun and the beaches of California and the West Coast. “A lot of people were obsessed with Chet,” says one old friend; during the Fifties, most American icons seemed to be sportsmen, but Baker – presumably because he was white and good looking at a time when segregation was still the norm – broke through. Robert Wagner played Baker, or at least an analogue of him called Chad Bixby, in All The Fine Young Cannibals in 1960; Baker himself was due to star, but had got busted for drugs and gone to Europe.

Apart from Baker, there’s plenty of contributions in Weber’s film from his exes (he was married three times, and had two other significant partners besides). There’s his third wife, Carol, an English actress who has also raised three of Chet’s children; she’s remarkably dignified and courteous when discussing her presumably fraught relationship down the years with Baker, who’s unsurprisingly described as “a careless father”. In contrast to Carol, there’s Ruth Young, a rather low-rent Liza Minelli type, the cold, beautiful blood of Hollywood running through her veins, and Diana Vavra, who seems to have spent most of her adult life running after Baker, trying to look after him. All of them still love Baker, and they all seem to concur he was, at worst, a con man, a junkie who’d cut out on you without a second thought.

What’s incredible is that Weber manages to coax some performances out of Baker during the film. The soundtrack, incidentally, is available on Amazon and I spent most of the weekend listening to it, pausing only for The Archers omnibus yesterday morning. Anyway, it’s all that kind of smoky, noctural jazz you associate with Baker, beautiful blue moods. Despite being wracked by years as a junkie, and finding it increasingly difficult to get gigs, Baker seems to still be in full possession of his formidable talents, particularly his soft, plaintive voice.

I guess what I've been saying here for the last 600 words is that when music documentaries work, they can be pretty exceptional. And this, certainly, is among the exceptional ones.


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