Lost from the 80s
LET’S GET LOST — Bruce Weber, USA, 1989, 8
Bad movies can sometimes make good movies in the same genre look even better in retrospect than they might have otherwise. LET’S GET LOST is a documentary about jazz trumpeter/singer Chet Baker whose life seemed to follow the same trajectory as Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. Or rather, the trajectory of RAY or WALK THE LINE …. the early success, the multiple marriages/family crises, the drug addiction, the out-of-favor period, the comeback.
But LET’S GET LOST doesn’t follow that template at all, and really profits by that comparison. Director Bruce Weber does something curious and refreshing with the life story, which is to basically ignore it, though admittedly that means the film works better when you see it the second time, as I just did, or with someone who already knows the basic Chet Baker bio. This late-80s documentary, which I saw at the time and liked fairly well, is apparently making the theatrical rounds of America’s bigger cities (I can’t think why … unless it’s the 20th anniversary of Baker’s death). I wasn’t even looking out for it, but it was a welcome surprise to see it suddenly listed in a commercial theater, rather than a repertory.
Instead of a biopic, Weber made a film that’s less like a documentary and more like a piece of Romantic fiction. LET’S GET LOST, like Coleridge’s Xanadu, feels like the opium haze that Baker’s life apparently was, overripe Romantic decadence as it falls from the tree (Camille Paglia would love this movie). Though it’s never really “difficult” to follow, LOST jumps around in time without too much concern for telling a story. Instead, Weber goes for a reverie feel, for a collection of moods and feelings, with montages from the past drifting in and out as if trying to erase the sense of time itself. Baker doesn’t really “go” from being a hip jazzman to a derelict; it’s more like he’s always both.
Heroin is never exactly brought up as the explicit topic for a segment of LOST to “deal with” a la the typical biopic or documentary, often to do so in a pat-narrative fashion. Instead, Baker just mentions being in jail on drugs charges; his ex-wives mention his habit in the context of some other point (usually what hell marriage to him could be); his collaborators mention it en passant or recounting what a manipulator he could be, etc. … it’s the elephant in the room. But the thing is Weber doesn’t really NEED to bring it up or give it a narrative arc because it’s everywhere, it’s the very environment the film breathes. The images of Baker late in life say it all — the sunken face with skin turned so waxen that crow’s-feet lines can carve so deep into the flesh, they’re more like crow’s legs. Baker mumbling semi-coherently. And the contrast with Baker’s pin-up boy looks from the early 50s couldn’t be more startling (Baker also looks, even down to the flat nose, very like Andy Minsker, the subject of Weber’s previous film, the even better BROKEN NOSES)¹.
Baker’s music, to which I have had no exposure outside the context of my two viewings of this film, fits the film Weber made perfectly. There’s not much “action” (I don’t mean to sound like the emperor in AMADEUS, but there aren’t many notes in Baker’s music), nor does the music do much in terms of beat or rhythm. But there’s a kind of minimalist integrity to it, a ghostliness as Baker’s soft, thin voice keeps everything in the background and produces a kind of lazy, hazy, crazy feeling. It’s like mood music, and LET’S GET LOST is nothing if not a mood film. The image quality is incredible in the same ghostly vein, as befits the still photographer Weber began as. Weber generally uses a very grainy black-and-white with a fast exposure, not much depth and limited shadow, except in some posed stills. It’s a bit like cinema verite, but lusher and more-composed (“artier” or “more lyrical” if you like). And it’s another correlative to both Baker’s music and his life — romantic and Romantic. Creating a mood over presenting crisp, realistic clarity. But now looking a trifle outdated.
Late in the film, Weber asks Baker what he thinks of the previous several days of filming, whether he’ll see it as a good time? “How the hell else could I see it?” Baker answers while strongly implying he’s been strung out on heroin throughout, and blaming Weber for setting up a stressful situation from which he needed unspecified relief. Lost as ever.
¹ I must acknowledge that I’m not certain my slightly higher opinion of the earlier film (9-8) isn’t the result of my greater inherent interest in boxing than early-50s jazz. Neither film is available on DVD though … hint, hint.
No comments yet.