Bye bye beautiful

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There’s a wonderful moment during the performance of "Bye Bye Blackbird" that opens the 1964 Chet Baker set preserved on a recent Jazz Icons DVD (Chet Baker Live in ’64 and ’79 [Reelin in the Years]). In the midst of the squarish piano player’s solo, the star trumpeter shuffles into the medium close-up frame, shucking a cigarette from his accompanist’s pack. Chiseled even when sporting a stuffy sweater, Baker takes a long drag and glides back to his place on the stage. The pianist plays on, but the camera operator tracks Baker, plainly in the clutch of a lonely lothario.

The cigarette break is more revealing of Baker’s largesse — his ineffable cool and the desire it produced — than any of his softly sustaining trumpet solos for the television program are. It also sheds some light on the side-winding portraiture that marks Bruce Weber’s adoring documentary Let’s Get Lost, filmed during the last months of Baker’s life in 1987 and now playing in a restored print at the Castro Theatre.

The first interview in Let’s Get Lost is with photographer William Claxton, an early admirer of Baker’s who waxes poetic about the revelation of shooting such a naturally photogenic subject. Weber, known for innumerable sleek Calvin Klein and Abercrombie and Fitch spreads, riffles through these striking stills in contact-sheet form, a neat solution to the persistent documentary problem of how to make archival photographs move. Twenty minutes pass before we begin to explore Baker’s music, and there are another 20 minutes after that before we meet his Oklahoma mother, our first whiff of personal history. Backward, it might seem, except for Baker’s being a cipher of his own iconography.

"He was trouble and he was beautiful," an interviewee muses early in Let’s Get Lost, and it might as well be the film’s byline. He was beautiful, possessing a ravaged, introspective glamour attractive to both men and women: writing about Baker’s underfed croon in his excellent liner notes for The Best of Chet Baker Sings (Blue Note, 1953), Will Friedwald notes, "His moony voice twangs like an Oakie [sic]-cum-valley person at times, but more often he achieves geographic — not to mention sexual — ambivalence." Though less remembered today than James Dean or Jack Kerouac, Baker had a comparable rogue appeal, his missing front tooth suggestive of wounded sensitivity, his shoulders bent under the unknowable weight of being himself.

Weber’s velvety black-and-white cinematography has never met a silhouette it didn’t like, and indeed, his documentary is first and foremost a tribute to Baker’s arch stylishness. Insofar as Josef von Sternberg, Leni Riefenstahl, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s idolatrous visions are often said to anticipate modern fashion imagery, Weber must rightly be considered their direct descendent: a fashion photographer turned filmmaker unapologetically devoted to surfaces. He is equally attentive to the silvery bleach of Santa Monica, the inky black swallowing various stage spotlights, and the shadows of heroin abuse running across Baker’s unbearably gaunt 57-year-old face — all shot in an amorous chiaroscuro evocative of the trumpeter’s West Coast cool musical phrasings, his constant drug nod, and the late-night languidness of his smoking and speech.

But, of course, Baker was trouble too, and this is where Let’s Get Lost can feel strained. Though clearly a labor of love, the film shrugs off conclusiveness as casually as one of Baker’s shopworn melodies might. For one thing, Weber isn’t much of an interviewer, asking the musician’s mother, "Did he disappoint you as a son?" and directing one of Baker’s ex-wives to "tell me something romantic." Still, with the recent documentary explosion prizing kinetic revelations at all costs, Weber’s patient accumulation is a virtue in itself. We hear several versions of a story about Baker getting his teeth knocked out, and although none of them paints a convincingly specific picture, we do get the overarching thrust of a sad decline.

Originally released the same year as Gus Van Sant’s similarly loving debut, Mala Noche, Let’s Get Lost gives the lie to the notion that every gaze is created equal. Weber may wrap the disillusionment of Baker’s life in the romanticism of the latter’s demeanor, but the director also gives the spiraling musician space for self-expression (including a couple of lovely, understated full performances) and, in an empathetic final scene, offers to buy him a methadone fix. The film is as recklessly lyrical as Baker was himself, and it’s in this way that — in spite of its shortcomings as biography — Let’s Get Lost has the spiritual heft of an ample epigraph. The ragged icon mumbles about the film’s production being "a dream," and the inevitable fade to black and memorial that follows seem exactly the type of void he’d like to walk into. *

LET’S GET LOST

Opens Fri/18, $6–$9

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com