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Movie Review

The lasting allure of Chet Baker

'Let's Get Lost' captures the seductive power of the conflicted jazzman

Bruce Weber's 1989 film is a vivid portrait of trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker. Bruce Weber's 1989 film is a vivid portrait of trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker. (LITTLE BEAR FILMS)
Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / January 25, 2008

Early on in "Let's Get Lost," Bruce Weber's 1989 documentary about Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter is asked if he'd like a glass of wine. "Yeah," he replies in that wispy exhale of a voice that always made his singing sound so imperiled - and irresistible. The way Baker pronounces the word you hear diffidence, avidity, resignation, possibly even thirst. It may be that no syllable has been more seductively uttered in a movie. It also may be that no documentary has ever been more seductive than "Let's Get Lost."

Since von Sternberg last shared a sound stage with Dietrich, has director so clearly been in love with star?

Weber's film opens a two-week run at the Brattle today. Its original local engagement was there, too. That was barely a year after Baker's death, and the documentary had an inescapable funerary aura to it, verging on necrophilia. Weber's camera was that worshipful, the black-and-white cinematography that gorgeous. The effect was at once creepy and prophetic. The Baker shown on the beach at Santa Monica, steering a bumper car, riding in the backseat of a '50s convertible was a doomed man, and a sense of impending death hung over the documentary. (Baker, 58, fell from a hotel window in Amsterdam; his death was ruled an accident.)

Two decades later, seen completely on its own terms, "Let's Get Lost" appears quite different. Its look is still ravishing. Weber is a highly regarded photographer, and his superb eye is everywhere evident (a newly struck print does that eye full, lustrous justice). More important, Baker as subject remains an absolutely compelling mix of allure and awfulness. But now the documentary has an almost-timeless quality. Yes, it's about Baker, obviously, but a Baker who's somehow both much more and much less than the man seen on screen.

It's hard to exaggerate just how beautiful Baker was when young: prominent cheekbones, deep-set eyes, square jaw, sensual mouth. Weber's inclusion of extensive archival footage casts into all the greater relief what a wreck Baker had become. He was a kind of aural Dorian Gray: The aspen-leaf voice staying ageless, the delivery improving even, as the face tightens into decay and corruption.

At various moments, the latter-day Baker can seem to resemble Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, or Matt Dillon (it's the eyes). Such names underscore how good-looking he had been - as with a classical ruin, much beauty still lay amid the rubble. But there being so many lookalikes gets at an even more important truth about Baker: what a moral chameleon he was.

"He was bad. He was trouble, and he was beautiful," an unidentified female voice says at the beginning of "Let's Get Lost." Presumably, that list is in decreasing order of importance. Baker's drug use was fairly typical for a jazzman of his generation, though his fidelity to it might not have been. There are moments in "Let's Get Lost" - the title of one of Baker's best-known songs, it works on a dismaying number of levels for the documentary - when Baker seems on the verge of nodding off; and the casualness with which he describes his favorite high, a speedball (a mixture of cocaine and heroin), verges on the horrifying.

What wasn't typical, one hopes, was Baker's absolute disregard for others. "Everyone has a Chet Baker story," the photographer William Claxton says on-camera. Weber lets us hear a lot of them. Sometimes the Chet Baker stories are funny, as when the trumpeter Jack Sheldon talks about Baker eating the pie off his plate when the young musicians were starting out (and Sheldon's mother had baked the pie!). Usually, they're not, as when we hear from the last of Baker's three wives, three of his four children, his mother, a past girlfriend, and a current one. His life was an endless train wreck, one he kept walking away from, though not unscarred. It's everyone else who got left lying on the tracks.

The miraculous thing about "Let's Get Lost" is that Weber has managed to create something that's both impossibly stylized and unmistakably moral (not judgmental, moral). Even as he glorifies Baker's persona - no, he worships it - he also undermines it. Weber shows us just how dreadful Baker could be as a person . . . and, however paradoxically, the extent to which that dreadfulness contributed to his magnetism. Those women Weber interviews all have hair-raising things to say about Baker. Also, to varying degrees, they all still love him. The two elements don't cancel out but rather merge to create something larger, richer, deeper: a rendering of an artist that is itself a work of art, and a moral portrait of a hopelessly amoral man.

As a statement, "let's get lost" is ambiguous. It could be a suggestion or command, and "lost" can relate to any number of things: morality, direction, pleasure (in the old hipster sense). What isn't ambiguous about the statement is that it's a collective act. So long as Baker's involved, we want to get lost right along with him.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Let's Get Lost

Directed by: Bruce Weber

At: Brattle Theatre, Cambridge

Running time: 120 minutes

Unrated (casual profanity; matter-of-fact, even nostalgic, discussions of drug use; glimpses of bare bosoms)

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