Monday, February 17, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #84 - Let’s Get Lost (1988, dir. Bruce Weber)

If you go to the vinyl room of Twist And Shout and look up at the west wall near the big neon display for The Cure’s album Boys Don’t Cry you will see an odd photograph of two men sitting on a couch in a very casual setting. One of the men was an early Twist customer named Manzy, the other, a somewhat broken down old dude, is the jazz legend Chet Baker toward the end of his life. He spent a little time in Colorado, playing gigs where he could find them (a posthumous live album from Pueblo of all places was released) and, from what Manzy said, hanging out at his house, getting wasted and listening to jazz. Let’s Get Lost was released in 1988, the year I started Twist and Shout, and the coincidence of seeing the movie and meeting a real live connection to the man has given Chet Baker and this remarkable movie a special place in my life. Luckily, it happens to be one of the best music documentaries ever made.

I make that claim because it is one of the few films about a specific artist that not only informs about the artist, but also makes valid points about society and art in a larger sense. It is a profound experience if you are interested in Chet Baker, jazz, the nature of celebrity or the elusiveness of youth and beauty. It can be viewed in many ways - all successfully. Director Bruce Weber weaves together footage of Baker’s life, from angel-faced trumpet prodigy, to slightly scummy Italian B-movie star and sex symbol, to washed–up junkie jazz archetype, along the way interviewing his former lovers, abandoned children and bemused fellow travelers who paint the picture of a man who floated through life, getting by on his talent and youthful good looks, but who, like some Dorian Gray in reverse started to show the lines and cracks of his moral dissolution in his very countenance. In fact that ironic and painful counterpoint between the beautiful, almost perfect face of the young man and the tortured, caved-in puss of the old wreck stands at the heart of Let’s Get Lost. Weber creates a contemporary narrative framework for his movie by filming Baker at the very end of his life (he died just months after the final filming) in a couple of interesting situations. One time, he takes Baker with him to The Cannes Film Festival, allowing the once glamorous and still alluring star to make ghostly appearances amongst the currently beautiful people. One senses Baker’s own mixed feelings about the whole affair. He is allowing himself to be a prop in a film about himself. The other sequence finds Baker hanging around in Santa Monica with a group of young hipsters half his age (including a young Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers). They surround Baker with admiration and hero worship while, for his part, Baker slips in and out of an opium-induced reverie; eyes half closed, a smile dancing across his lips. It is powerful stuff - especially when intercut with his youthful face on screen, full of promise, blowing his trumpet and singing like a cross between Miles Davis, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. He had everything it would seem.

The lasting value of Let’s Get Lost is in its exploration of the very nature of fame. Baker never seemed comfortable with his fame, he never felt at ease out of the world of the musician. His life was an endless one-night-stand, where marriages, children, stability and ultimately happiness take a back seat to the lightning thrill of the next gig and the only companion to be counted on is the needle. The portrait we leave this film with is that of a true artist - his remarkable gifts still intact even at the end of his life, housed in the body of a very imperfect man. Chet Baker wandered this world creating beauty and leaving sadness in his wake, but director Bruce Weber finds a way to bring redemption from this sad tale. Ultimately each of us must wrestle with the good and bad forces within ourselves, and seeing another human live this juxtaposition and leave a legacy of great art is all we can ask from another frail human being and more than we can ask from any film.
- Paul Epstein

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