Blame Evan Rachel Wood for this. She tweeted that her song of the day, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is “My Funny Valentine,” by Etta James.
My favorite version is by Chet Baker. I went on YouTube to find a version to post here or on Facebook, and lo, and behold, somebody had posted the entire Bruce Weber documentary, “Let’s Get Lost.”
Even if you aren’t familiar with Bruce Weber’s name, you have definitely seen his work. He’s the guy who shot all those steambath Calvin Klein ads in the 80’s & 90’s.
Chet Baker is the perfect Bruce Weber subject. In the 1950’s, Chet Baker resembled James Dean. When New York was a riot of frenetic bebop, Baker and his peers epitomized the more relaxed, melodic, even romantic West Coast Sound (“Cool Jazz,” as some of the hep cats called it).
Chet Baker’s trumpet sound was amazing, warm and rich; his vocals were haunting. One photographer who shot a recording session Baker played said, “Looking at him through the lens, I suddenly understood what ‘charisma’ meant. And ‘star quality.'”
“Let’s Get Lost” shows hundreds of photos of young, handsome Chet Baker. These pictures are juxtaposed against Weber’s footage following Baker in 1987.
Holy shit, what a difference. There are some scenes where Baker makes Keith Richards look like Dakota Fanning. (Well, not quite, but I love that simile)
Ravaged doesn’t begin to describe the changes in Chet Baker’s visage. The documentary does. Chet Baker had his teeth knocked out trying to buy heroin in San Francisco. It took him three years before he was ready to play in a New York club again.
Baker tells these stories in his soft, haunting voice. I know I used “haunting” before, but there’s no better adjective to describe that voice, not as it talks about his favorite high being a “speedball,” and how the ratio of heroin to cocaine has to be just right. Not as it tells about arrests and jail and broken marriages.
And there are other accounts. Some of Baker’s ex-wives and former girlfriends describe their times with Chet, the manipulation and chaos. His teenaged daughter talks about trying to visit him, finding an empty house, and taking some of his girlfriend’s jewelry, because it’s the only way she could “get back at her.” His own mother admits to being disappointed in Chet as a son.
The odd thing is, everyone seems to accept him as he is. The camera follows Baker around Los Angeles and Cannes, and there are many times where he’s nodding off, obviously wasted on something. Near the end, we hear Bruce Weber tell Chet that they’ve arranged for some methadone, since he’s been away from his usual Amsterdam doctor. Baker’s response implies that he’s found another source, or else he wouldn’t have been able to complete the filming.
Chet Baker in “Let’s Get Lost” is a hot mess, but he still has that “something.” He may be half-stoned when he’s talking, but in the studio scenes, he is clearly in control. His voice is weaker than it once was, but he can still sing. To me, Chet Baker as a singer was always sad, like he was teetering between love and hurt, between being great or dreadful, with no gray area.
Weber shoots “Let’s Get Lost” entirely in black & white. His iconic stills are mostly b&w, so it makes sense. The added benefit in this case is that the modern flows so seamlessly into old tv footage and stills of Chet Baker. It gives the sense we’re seeing one big arc.
A card shortly before the credits describes how Chet Baker died shortly after filming. He jumped/fell/was tossed from an Amsterdam hotel window. He doesn’t seem like he’d jump. He was lost, but he was still kicking. Just in a subdued, purgatorial way.
I’m a jazz guy. I have been since I was a kid. I’ve seen many of the greats, and I’ve seen some old guys who might have been thisclose once, but now just play for drinks on open jam night. If you asked me which trumpet players were most innovative, I’d say Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. If you asked me which trumpet player is my favorite, it has always been Chet Baker. He still is.
“Let’s Get Lost” just enhances the haunting beauty of Chet Baker’s music. It’s an amazing documentary, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar in 1988. Another nominated film that year was Clint Eastwood’s tremendous biopic “Bird.” Forest Whitaker gave a scalding performance as Charlie Parker, a 1950’s jazz great, whose battles with drugs and the law cut short his career. Care to guess which sax player gave Chet Baker an early break?
“Let’s Get Lost” is a documentary that feels like a novel. It is sad, but also very, very beautiful. Even if you don’t like jazz.