A prodigiously talented, self-taught jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker began his spectacular, lauded career in the early 1950s and carved out a singular pathway through the history of jazz.
Baker’s melodious, lyrical style was traditional and conservative when compared with the developing experimental Free Jazz scene of the 1950s and 60s, yet despite this he became popular on the bohemian/beatnik jazz circuit, rocketing to fame in his early 20s when the photographer William Claxton produced a series of iconic images of the young James Dean lookalike. Over the years his formidable musical skills made him a legend, but a wild, erratic lifestyle became his downfall, leading to heroin addiction, prison sentences and ultimately his untimely demise, aged 58 – shortly after this film was completed – when he fell out of a high window to his death. Retroactively this gives Let’s Get Lost an ominous, portentous quality.
Bruce Weber’s 1988 documentary portrait has, at its heart, an irreducible mystery: Baker himself, who is an elusive, obscure presence, hardly allowing the filmmaker or the audience into his opaque inner life and thoughts; the fundamental passions, drives and motivations behind his cool, seemingly unruffled exterior. After a meandering, restless tour through the US and Europe, we are left little the wiser as to who the ‘real’ Chet Baker actually is and why he later became drug-dependent, abandoned his family and had such volatile, fractious love affairs. Most of Baker’s persona is elliptically constructed through observations and revelations from family, ex-wives, girlfriends and acolytes, who are probably a more reliable source in their subjective portrayals of him than his own somewhat cagey, stilted exposition, gradually and patiently coaxed out by the director.
Weber’s style alludes to a range of cinematic tropes: from the abstract camera angles and stark black and white chiaroscuro of film noir to the grainy, rough-edged flexibility of cinéma vérité and the French New Wave, redolent of Godard, the Maysles brothers, Cassavetes and Haskell Wexler. The director composes, photographs and edits his film in much the same way his subject performs – there is an unrehearsed, immediate, open-ended feel to the scenes where Baker riffs on how he conned his way out of the army or got his teeth smashed out in a fight. Weber reinforces this fairly unstructured, yet quietly designed and captivating ambience through the subtle use of techniques like audio overlay, as when an interviewee’s voice encroaches onto – but somehow smoothly combines with – footage of Baker softly crooning or eliciting a plaintive, mellifluous melody from his trumpet. This irresolute audio-visual quality perfectly appropriates and is synonymous with the free-flowing, spontaneous nature of jazz, although the inexplicable paucity of film clips of Baker’s wonderful trumpet playing – his raison d’íÂªtre – is a glaring weakness.
Nevertheless, this slow-burning, nostalgic elegy to an artist’s free-spirited youth and his one eternal love, music, is a timeless capsule of a fleeting, intense and unbridled life, made all the more poignant by the tragic death of its star.
The summer print issue of Electric Sheep is a jazz and cinema special to coincide with the re-release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, a heart-rending, soulful monochrome gem. To celebrate the belated recognition of one of American independent cinema’s greats, we look at the influence of jazz on film in the US with articles on Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Jim Jarmusch and Beat cinema among others. For more information on where to buy the magazine and how to subscribe, please contact amanda [at] wallflowerpress.co.uk.