The Untenable Lightness of CHET
Bruce Weber's latest film, Let's Get Lost, documents the low-life style of Chet Baker from young trumpet god of 1953 to the time-ravaged jazz foot soldier who fell to his death from a hotel window last May.
Let's Get Lost, Bruce Weber's second feature-length documentary in two years, begins unassumingly, calmly offering rather than enticing you to step behind its inscrutable black and white surface. By the time you've reached a rapport with the film and with its raison d'etre—the legendary jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker—it has turned introspective, and the inscrutability has given way to a hard edged probe of Baker's troubled career. Weber found himself gravitating toward Baker as a subject while still involved in his previous film, Broken Noses. Its subject, boxer Andy Minsker, reminded Weber of 'a young Chet Baker playing his trumpet in Rome.' He used some of Baker's music in his soundtrack, which effectively echoes boxing idioms with those of jazz. Propelled by a growing apprecia tion of the man and his music, Weber met Baker and got him interested in making a film.
The progression between Broken Noses and Let's Get Lost is not merely chronological, but thematic. Boxers and jazzmen, Weber suggests, share a spiritual and professional kinship, a similar individualistic sensibility. "Their lives are always on the edge, they have this constant fight within themselves all the time to prove themselves. Pretty much like everybody else does, but in a more extreme, dramatic way. Life on the road takes an incredible toll on them. I guess I'm interested in people who have a lot of conviction about the way they want to live their lives."
Chet Baker had just that. In the early fifties he burst onto the Los Angeles jazz scene at the age of twenty-two, performing with such luminaries as Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan, as well as with his own combo. His youthful good looks and naturally melodic style earned him critical and popular success, and a reputation as something of an enfant terrible. But after several years of living the life of a jazz idol, Baker discovered heroin, and began a lifelong struggle with drugs that would bring him jail terms, bad publicity, and a career-threatening penchant for personal instability. A maverick romantic to the last, Baker lived out his life wandering the U.S. and Europe, living out of hotel rooms, doing gigs, and making periodic comebacks to the recording industry through the last three decades.
To record such a life required something other than the standard 'famous person ' documentary. "I had seen a lot of jazz documentaries, and they were mostly about people sitting in a room playing music. Every once in awhile they 'd stop and talk for about a minute between riffs, and then they'd go back to playing music." Weber decided on an approach that would better reflect Baker's personal style—a road movie in tone and texture, following Baker in his travels. Since coordinating Baker 's notorious undependability (no one claimed he was good at keeping appointments) with the demands of a film crew schedule was out of the question, Weber compromised and went the way of his subject. "We did it the way Baker always handled his gigs," he explained. " 'We're going to be out in California, why don't you come out, let 's see what we can do. Maybe we can record a song.' It was very true to our experiences with him."
Let's Get Lost uses the standard documentary fare of subject and source interviews and archival footage, supplemented by recording sessions and impromptu glimpses at Baker and his young entourage. But this is served up in a challenging, visually uncompromising style. Each shot is meticulously composed, Weber's high-contrast black and white film stock emphasizing deep textures and sharply-defined shapes. The effect is particularly striking on Baker himself, whose craggy face tells more tales than he himself would volunteer. The film is comprised mostly of close and medium shots, concentrated images that make the most of available frame space.
In keeping with this precise visual technique, the narrative of Let's Get Lost builds in an almost cloying fashion, its structures and progression not immediately apparent. Baker, at first reserved and cryptic, is first revealed in his early 50's heyday. Archival footage and the words of those who knew him present a paragon, a mythic incarnation who inspired imitators and followers inside the jazz world and out. It is the striking visual contrast between this young trumpet god of 1953 and the time-ravaged jazz foot soldier of 1988 that draws us into the film and asks its central question: What has happened to Chet Baker in the intervening years, and how has he arrived at his present-day self?
After we hear the ionizations of those who were influenced by him, we watch the stones turn over and start to hear some answers. Baker, as if finally accustomed to the audience's company, speaks directly about himself and his experience: his introduction to the trumpet, conniving his way out of the army, his most famous drug arrest, losing his teeth in a brawl, etc. His lovers and family come out with more stories (occasionally contradicting Baker 's own), describing a deceptive, manipulative man consumed by a drug habit and by his own chronic aloofness. Increasingly candid anecdotes drive the film through his checkered career, slowly and sometimes painfully revealing
clues to his enigma. But Weber never allows anyone, Baker especially, to claim sole possession of the truth. For each emotion or conjecture, it seems, there is an equal and opposite one. The result is a personality unified only by its own being, left without any externally-imposed unity to hold it together—much, perhaps, like Chet Baker was in his own nomadic life.
Forty-two-year-old Weber 's stylistic uniqueness can be traced in part to his background in still photography. In the past five years he has had one-man exhibitions throughout the United States, as well as in France, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland. He is well known for his award-winning work in fashion photography and advertising, with perhaps his biggest success being Calvin Klein 's pace-setting black and white campaign of a few years back. His work in film does not represent a career change for Weber—he will continue to work in his other fields—but a continuity. "There's a temptation for a photographer who's making a film to say Tm going to do everything different.' But I think of my films as a continuation of my work in still photography. I've learned a lot about seeing from making films, and that 's something I'll always be grateful for, even if nobody likes them."
Despite the success and facility of Weber 's crossover, one can't attri bu te his cinematic approach entirely to his previous professional back ground. Though the meticulously composed odd angle close-ups and off-center shots of Let 's Get Lost may remind us of Weber 's commercial photography, there is a broader aesthetic at work. His sense of com position is neither purely formalist nor purposely disorienting. Rather, it enhances the subject's presence by placing the viewer as close as possible to the action—an interest Weber traces back to his earliest experiences with cameras. "Ever since I was a kid I 've liked to be in the middle of things. I love to be transported, I like to be right there, almost able to touch the person I'm seeing. I don't like frames or setups where you're outside of the situation so much that it becomes like a stage."
This concern with presence carries beyond the visual and into Weber's sense of narrative structure. He mentions the Italian neorealist cinema (De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, etc.) and the Westerns of John Ford and George Stevens as models and influences on his filmmaking style. Deeply rooted in their setting, they have for Weber a palpable documentary quality. "John Ford's films seem to me like great documentaries of a bunch of his friends," he explained. "He had a bunch of people who he worked with through the years. It's as if he said, 'Okay, today we're going to be in the cavalry.' Most good films are very documentary, because you're documenting the life of the people around you, even if you're making up the story."
This conception of film-as document places Chet Baker in a kind of cinematic limbo Weber finds fascinating to work with. He leaves his protagonist without the structural prop of a preordained narrative, and without documentaries character flattening objectification. "I don't really distinguish between people in feature films and people in documentaries. I've always thought that the best documentaries were about people who, in a way, could be great actors." On the other side of the coin are those fiction film directors—particularly the Italian neo- realists—who subvert the imaginary border between documentary and feature by using nonprofessional actors. "They would find a waiter in a restaurant and all of the sudden he'd be Ingrid Bergman 's lover, he'd be an actor. But is he an actor, or is he a real person? Is La Dolce Vita a feature or a kind of documentary?"
Chet Baker cut back and forth across that line in his own life, playing the role of the romantic jazz trumpeter and helping to propagate its myth. Let 's Get Lost includes a curious clip from All The Fine Young Cannibals, a 1960 Hollywoodized version of Baker's early career. The lead role was originally meant for Baker, but his drug arrests nixed that; instead Robert Wagner, looking nothing at all like a hip jazzman, blew sensuous and Svengali-like on his horn as Natalie Wood swooned. Baker was for many jazz fans the embodiment of stardom, and Let's Get Lost is a complex document of that stardom: what it means to need it or have it, what it means to be around someone who does. Baker, a man who had stardom, lost it, and regained it with a mature dignity, is an ideal lens onto that world.
The joys of celebrity reach a climax in Europe—scene of what many feel to be Baker 's greatest performances—with the whole entourage relaxing on the beach at Cannes. The youngsters strut their stuff, and are followed by an archival montage of various fifties stars, themselves putting on the dog for the public. The paparazzi and the gathered fans bring a short-lived rush of glamour. But butting hard against that glamour is a conversation between Weber (as always unobtrusively off-screen) and an anxious, weary-looking Baker. Weber worries over Baker 's health and tells him of arrangements to replenish his depleted supply of methadone. Reality, in the form of chemical addiction, intrudes arrestingly upon the world of fame and happiness.
Though this may be a rather sobering moment for his audience, Weber felt a direct discussion of the drug issue was critical to a complete picture of Baker's life while making Let's Get Lost. "We thought at first we were going to save him, get him to stop doing drugs, but about halfway through we realized that wasn't going to happen. It was such a drain on us day to day, not knowing if he'd finish the film because of his health or his mood, or even if he'd show up. And by that point I had to say exactly what I was feeling, that it was very painful to see someone you really believed in slowly killing themselves. I think I was speaking for everyone in the crew. I wanted to know how he felt about us, how he looked on us, what we meant to him. Did we mean any thing different to him than all the people who'd taken advantage of him? " Let's Get Lost did not end up saving Chet Baker, who fell to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window on Friday, May 13, 1988, about two months after the close of shooting. The circumstances have remained suspicious, though Dutch police insist his death was a suicide and refuse to investigate it. Suicide, say Weber and other of Baker's friends, was not Baker's style.
With Let's Get Lost due to be released April 21, Bruce Weber is still on the lookout for his next film project. Given his penchant for exploring obscure subjects, he is one director who doesn't appear headed for Hollywood anytime soon. He personally financed both Broken Noses and Let 's Get Lost himself—the latter to the tune of just over a million dollars. Because of Baker 's past drug problems and notorious difficulty in keeping commitments (he sometimes had trouble making his gigs, and many suspected he would have even more making a film), outside money was not an alternative. "Nobody would ever give us money to make a film about Chet Baker," he says simply.
But Baker was cooperative throughout, and Weber and his crew managed to finish the film on a shoestring budget that included travel to California, Oklahoma (Baker's home state), Cannes, and back to the states.
These are surely not the condi tions Weber enjoys in his commercial work; but they allow him a creative freedom and close collaboration that would be difficult—perhaps less pleasurable—if he were to produce his films commercially. "I think I'm really lucky, because I'm making films that are more like a family project, which relates to why I like the films I talked about before—De Sica, Rossellini, Ford, Stevens. They had groups of people who kept working together all the time, and whose vision kept getting brighter because they were working together. Documentaries for me are like that because I find romance in real people. That's who my movie stars are."
Steven Wingate is a scriptwriter and freelance journalist.