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June 04, 2008

Let’s Get Lost

Lets_get_lost_2 If you were asked to name a famous American jazz trumpeter and singer, who would you think of? The chances are you’d go for Louis Armstrong, and that’s great. But how many of you have heard of Chet Baker? Well if you’re a jazz aficionado or if you’re old enough to remember Elvis Costello’s 1983 song ‘Shipbuilding’, you might know who he is. But if you don’t, or if your music tastes don’t extend to jazz, it really doesn’t matter. Let’s Get Lost is one of those documentaries that draws you in because some individuals, whoever they are, have incredible abilities, interesting stories and intriguing lives that the rest of us want to hear about.

Fashion photographer Bruce Weber is the talent behind Let’s Get Lost, which was first released in 1988. You might be sceptical about how well a stills artist – despite widespread acclaim for images used in Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads – could make the transition to the moving image. Well, I suppose some people just have it, and Weber certainly does. His distinctive, but unpretentious, black and white style translates evocatively on-screen and sets a fitting mood for a film that’s about the life of a gifted but tortured jazz great.

It’s 1987 and we see a 50-something Chet Baker, shockingly wrinkled and worn. This is the man who, in his younger years, prompted continual comparisons to James Dean for his looks, had countless women falling at his feet with his lyrical playing and attracted admiration from his peers for his effortless, mellow style. (Weber brilliantly captures Baker’s signature style and the visual image that complemented this, by presenting a series of 1950s/60s studio session photos accompanied by classic Baker tunes.) Of course we all age, but you realise – if you didn’t already know – that this weathering is not just down to the passing of time. Chet Baker developed a hardcore heroin habit in the 1960s, in the midst of a thriving career, and was never really able to free himself from the chains of addiction.

So how did a normal boy, Chesney Henry Baker, become the icon of West Coast cool jazz? Well, after teaching himself to play the trumpet as a boy, having a couple of stints in army bands and dropping out of music school, Baker went on to become a pro. It was his appearance with Stan Getz that really got him noticed, but playing with Charlie Parker and then Gerry Mulligan secured his future as a star. Ironically, it was drugs that abruptly ended this perfect partnership when Mulligan was thrown into jail for possession, and it wouldn’t take long for Baker to follow suit.

One of the things that makes Let’s Get Lost so much better than your average biographical tribute, is the interspersing of classy photography, varied interviews and archive footage. Each element contributes to building a full picture of an artist whose life had several sides. The film’s non-linear path, and the raw honesty of personal accounts from family and friends, ex-wives and ex-lovers, contemporaries and Baker himself, also give it a level of depth and authenticity that you can truly connect with.

So what made Baker the way he was? By giving careful weight to different viewpoints, Weber’s documentary leaves you to draw your own conclusions. What we do know, however, is that Baker was always determined to get what he wanted, whatever the costs. He lied his way out of the army by feigning mental illness; manipulated the people close to him to support his drug habit; and no doubt conjured up that famous story of the assault that left him practically toothless and committed to playing with dentures for the rest of his life.

But Let’s Get Lost cleverly stops you feeling sad or annoyed at this wasted life by always bringing you back to the man and his music. Being able to command the attention of a young audience at a small live gig in your final days is not exactly a cinch, but Baker pulls it off in the film. In fact, in spite of his faltering career, he always managed to retain the artistic respect he established from the outset.

Weber’s timing in making this documentary when he did was either shrewd or fortuitous because only months after the film’s release, Baker was dead, having fallen out of a window. Despite this tragic finale, however, you recognise that Baker could so easily have left this world much sooner, and, more importantly, what he left in this world is here to stay.

Let’s Get Lost is out in UK cinemas from 6 June.

[Reviewed and posted by HC]

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