White Cool

Chet Baker could break your heart with his romantic trumpet sound and melancholy way of phrasing a ballad. With his Rebel Without a Cause looks, Baker’s sound and image could hook you “in about 20 seconds,” an ex-girlfriend tells Bruce Weber in Let’s Get Lost. Photographer/filmmaker Weber, who was 16 when he became a Chet Baker fan, calls his movie “a loving record of the time” he and his crew spent with Baker. A compelling and disturbing homage to a jazz great who got hooked, in his twenties, on heroin, Let’s Get Lost also celebrates the American jazz scene of the 50s and 60s.

Weber’s eye fixes on beauty and style in the movie as it does in his art photography and his commercial work for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. In those ads, young men very much like young Chet Bakers flirt with young women—images that evoke time passing and the heartbreak of romance. A sense of the fleeting moment and the vulnerability to heartbreak pervade Let’s Get Lost. With Baker as its enigmatic star, the movie follows beauty and brilliance turning tormented, distorted and sad. Baker is the cool, romantic guy who stepped from day into night to live in semi- darkness. Shot in black and white, sometimes with a hand-held camera and always with startling immediacy by cinematographer Jeff Preiss, the movie lingers with Baker in film noir shadows. Preiss recalls, “When Chet didn’t want to be filmed, he’d just walk into a spot that wasn’t lit.”

To Weber the film is “about that thin line between love and fascination. We take into our own lives what the people we admire give us and we fantasize about it. Sometimes the fantasy is so far out of reach that when we meet that person he can’t live up to it.” Bruce Weber realized a fantasy. He filmed Baker in recording sessions, interviewed his ex-wives, children, lovers, the musicians he played with. He collected footage and thousands of stills of Baker, created scenes with actors and actresses for Baker to star in. Says Weber, “We spent a lot of time with Chet. And when we first met we were taken in by the romance of his music and the way he looked, and a little bit of his lifestyle when he was young. Then we realized we took it on ourselves because we kind of fell for him and we wanted to change him. But Chet never disappointed me, personally or musically.”

Weber’s fascination with Baker showed itself in his first film, Broken Noses (1987). Its protagonist, Andy Minsker, a young boxer, looks just like Baker when he was Minsker’s age. Minsker appears in Let’s Get Lost, too, sitting next to the jazzman, who, at the age of 57, shows the results of a lifetime of addiction in 1968. Baker was badly beaten up and lost his teeth—a disaster for a trumpet player and an event talked about several times in the film. His damaged mouth affected his career as well as his looks. It was three years before he could play again. According to Weber, Baker’s image “helped him get by when nobody listened to his music. There was a mystique around this guy, who was incredibly good-looking and cool, especially for a white musician. He was vain but he never wanted anyone to know it. He was the kind of guy who would never look in a mirror if there was anybody slightly in the neighborhood.”

Weber sometimes foregrounds Baker’s music in sessions or gigs, or uses it as ironic background to enactments or interviews. Baker sings “Just Friends” as an ex-lover talks, in close-up, about their relationship. Weber “wanted to make it seem, with all the close-ups, that the viewer was in the front seat. You look back and see Chet in the car.” Baker’s in that car or in a restaurant, haunting the film as he haunts the women who loved him. They talk about his charm, his unreliability. His children, now grown, say they hardly ever saw him. In one scene, the camera pans across Baker’s mother, children and estranged wife while he sings “Blame it on My Youth.”

The camera pursues Baker, who usually ignores its gaze. Nodding, his eyes frequently closed, he sits uneasily in the frame. Let’s Get Lost studies its subject but is just as much something to be studied, chasing as it does its elusive object of desire. At the end of the film, Weber asks him, “Will you look back on the film as good times?” It’s an uncomfortable moment. Weber suddenly exposes his own need. Baker comes to attention and looks steadily at the camera. “How the hell else could I see it, Bruce? Santa Monica. That scene in that hotel . . . in the studio. On the beach. It was so beautiful. It was a dream. Things like that just don’t happen. Just a very few.” As much as anything else, it’s his comment on the movie he’s in, a movie that achieves its intensity by looking for, and at, a man who spent much of his life getting lost.

Earlier in the film, a young man begs Baker to sing to people who might never hear him again. “I’m not dead yet,” Baker answers. But he’s dead now, having met an end that his friends might have expected and feared. Weber says Baker never got to see any of the footage. In May 1988, his body was found on a street in Amsterdam. The police say he committed suicide or fell out of his hotel window. 

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