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Bruce Weber and Chet Baker: Gorgeous Creatures

Posted: 03/19/2012 4:41 pm

By Robert Ham

Is it any wonder why Bruce Weber was drawn to Chet Baker as a documentary subject?

Weber, a longtime fashion photographer, is in love with the image of beautiful young people. It's why some of his warmest and most engaging portraits are for ad campaigns (Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Versace) or of celebrities in the bloom of their youth (Madonna, Robert Pattinson, Natalie Portman). These gorgeous creatures draw something out of Weber and vice versa.

When Baker arrived in the jazz world in the late '50s, he was a gorgeous creature. If he wanted to continue his short-lived acting career, he could have taken on the movie idols of the day. And it was that image that stirred something in Weber when he ran across a copy of a Chet Baker album at the age of 16. Can you blame him though? William Claxton says as much in the film when he talks about photographing one of his early recording sessions. "I got the very strong feeling of what photogenic meant... charisma. This guy's got all that stuff." And even in this film, some 40 years after that recording session, you still can't take your eyes off of Baker, and not simply due to the fact that he is the subject of Let's Get Lost. It's that slick backed hair; the strong round chin; the soft eyes and even softer speaking voice.

Movie -- Let's Get Lost (1988)

The camera loves him. But Weber seemingly can't help himself. He fills the edges of far too many scenes with beautiful young creatures. Chris Isaak hovers in the background while Baker records a stunning rendition of "Imagination." The young women who curl around Baker in the backseat of a convertible, cooing Italian into his ear. Baker flipping through a magazine of nude photos. The strange, but captivating 8 1/2-like party scene, where Baker holds court with a table of acolytes including Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea.

In that last instance, Weber can't keep the camera still, buzzing around with the people at the party like an '80s ad for a cologne. It's a strange reflexive move, and an almost self-conscious one on Weber's part. He wants to focus on Baker and the trumpeter's life story but it feels like he's disappointed that he didn't have the camera rolling in the '50s and '60s instead.

To make up for that, Weber aims -- and succeeds -- in trying to capture on film the look and feel of the classic jazz portraits from that era. The black & white cinematography is alluring and almost tactile, with natural light popping through the edges of the shots. Weber doesn't shy away from this tragicomic story either. He participates in unflinching interviews with Baker's family, his ex-wives, and his ex-lovers about the ups and downs of the late musician's life. You can sense the pain in their eyes and their voices as they talk about Baker. His mother, especially, looks close to tears when she admits to the camera that her son has been a great disappointment to her. And to listen to his teenaged children send a message to Chet to quit being such a screw up and offer up some financial support... it's just devastating.

Shortly after that scene, we are whisked to Cannes where Weber brought a documentary he had filmed. The director brought Baker along with him, as well as an entire entourage of, yes, young beautiful people. And as a spritely jazz number plays, he starts cutting in footage from previous years of the Cannes Film Festival -- Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren releasing birds into the air, Truffaut, Orson Welles, Robert Evans, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

Weber at least knows what a fascinating subject he has in his lens, and accordingly slows everything down in the film when it comes to discussions of the more troubling moments in his subject's life. The camera stays still as Baker slowly tells the story of getting his teeth knocked out by a bunch of hooligans and when he discusses his arrest in Italy for drug possession. And, in another scene, the camera closes in on Baker's face as he talks about his drug of choice, the speedball. As the aging trumpeter discusses the dangers of mixing too much cocaine in with your heroin, you can see him fighting off the nod.

Baker's is a tragic story -- particularly when you know that not long after the film was finished, he died after falling from his hotel room window in Amsterdam. So perhaps Weber kept the young beautiful visages in Let's Get Lost to temper what would otherwise be an overly dour film.

In that respect, the most important thing that Weber does in the film is to keep referring back to Baker's music. Scenes of him singing and playing are intercut in the film, letting the ethereal beauty of his voice and his trumpet cut through the gloom. It is a potent contrast asking the key question of how someone so messed up could produce such an incredible and unique sound.

There again, perhaps what keeps bringing Weber back to the joy and follies and beauty of youth throughout his career is that nagging understanding that old age is unavoidable. And hearing Baker's story and seeing his well-worn face and watching him shuffle around the screen in a possibly drug-fueled haze is just a further reminder of how far we all have the potential to fall. It's a tribute as much as it is a cautionary tale.


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