Chet Baker in Black and White, but Still Blurry
Bruce Weber Reminisces on 'Let's Get Lost'
Celebrity fashion photographer Bruce Weber brought his Oscar-nominated documentary, Let's Get Lost (1989), about jazz singer and trumpet great Chet Baker, to South by Southwest Film for a retrospective earlier this year. The film will play the Film Forum in June and be released on DVD in December. With his signature bandana-wrapped head (and a really fine laugh), Weber is almost as recognizable as the beautiful people he shoots for the glossy pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Abercrombie, and Lauren. (His work entered our visual consciousness back in the Eighties with his black-and-white Calvin Klein ads featuring scantily or not-at-all-clad male models.) Today, at 61, Weber describes himself as equal parts filmmaker, photographer, and, as the owner of six dogs, unabashed animal lover. Add to that unrepentant Chet Baker fan. Let's Get Lost is Weber's paean to the gifted James Dean look-alike who seemingly had it all and then, starting in his 20s, began to blow it all. Paying the piper for the heroin addiction he couldn't or wouldn't shake, the guy who'd been tapped to play with Charlie Parker did some hard time in Italian and American jails, was deported from Germany and Great Britain, and at one point, during a botched drug buy, had all of his teeth punched out. Baker died at 57 in a vaguely reported 1987 drug incident before Weber had finished his film. Bearing witness to this life truncated are the sometimes more bitter than sweet recollections of the now-familiar chronology of wives, grown kids, girlfriends, and even sweet mom from Oklahoma, each of whose great expectations inevitably ran aground on the sandbar of their collective irrelevance.
While clearly of a piece with Weber's still photography, the style of the film is fairly unconventional for a doc of its vintage, shot, as it was, in alternately underlit and high-contrast black and white, with interviews set and lit like photo shoots and the highly stylized directorial touch of the filmmaker evident throughout. Weber intercuts staged footage of a woozy, methadone-supported, 57-year-old Baker enjoying a windblown, midnight ride in the back seat of a top-down Cadillac convertible, sandwiched between two cooing women who nuzzle his ravaged, old-way-beyond-its-years face, with footage and stills from an earlier time, when the camera had far more reason to love Baker's face. Knitting it all together is Baker's seemingly effortless trumpet-playing and that soft, mellifluous voice that made songs like "My Funny Valentine," "Almost Blue," and "Let's Get Lost" famous.
Austin Chronicle: How was the experience of making a film about Chet Baker with Chet Baker?
Bruce Weber: It was pretty wild and wacky. For me, as a doc maker, it was like going to Marine boot camp, because you'd plan something, and it wouldn't happen the way you planned it, so you had to adapt to it, just go with it. Sometimes we'd have to stop for some reason or another and then, because Chet was a junkie and couldn't do things twice, we'd have to start all over again. But we grew to really like him. I always liked his music. He was sort of like having a child that you love that was always in trouble. The drugs played into it in a big way. People would ask, "Are you guys getting high with him?" And I'd say, "We're so square, man." But actually, I think that's why Chet ended up doing this film: He was really kind of conservative as a person.
AC: What was so unique about Baker musically?
BW: Chet had this unique way of sounding so smooth, his voice and the trumpet sound. ... He liked to use an old microphone that he'd put right up against his mouth. I think he was really admired by a lot of singers, because he also played the trumpet in a way that was conducive to the way singers phrase things but very upside-down, very different.
AC: In the film, we get some conflicting accounts, from various women in Baker's past, about two infamous incidents in his life. The one in which his teeth get knocked out obviously not a career-enhancer for a trumpet player and singer and then about how he died, supposedly falling out of a window in an Amsterdam hotel before you'd completed your film. What did you come to believe about what really transpired?
BW: The teeth incident happened the way Ruth Young told it: These guys beat Chet up because he did a bad drug deal. As far as how he died, someone told me that a friend of his was in Amsterdam at the time, and he went over and had a look at the windows in Chet's hotel room. He said those windows didn't open enough for anyone to fall out of them. That means Chet must have gotten into a bad drug deal, someone must have given him some bad stuff, he overdosed, and they just carried him down the stairs and put him on the street. Chet was somewhat unpopular with a lot of people because of drug deals where he wouldn't be honest with them, not pay up, or whatever; he had a bad reputation that way. That was a bad side to him, but he had a really great side, too. He was so much fun. You know, so many times when I'm driving around the country, I'll pass a motel in a town with a Greyhound bus terminal, and it's sunny and near the beach, and I'll think Chet would have loved staying at that motel, having breakfast at the coffee shop at the bus terminal, meeting some stranger, and then going to their house and staying for two weeks, just living the life of Riley. He was really fun to be with; he spoke French and Italian beautifully. He was an Oklahoma boy and had that elegance that a lot of people from the West have.
AC: The film has been out of distribution for 15 years, but when it was released in 1989, it garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and the Venice Film Festival Critics' Prize. What were some of the other reactions to the film when it first came out?
BW: Some people thought that jazz wasn't like that or that a doc shouldn't be personal, but I couldn't change the way I take pictures or make films. I think some people thought we were too forgiving of him or that we were letting him get away with things, but I don't feel that way. I feel that Chet was really wonderful to us; he showed us a side of himself because he trusted us, because we were there for him, in the best way. Our biggest problem was that, like a lot of those women in his life, we wanted to change his life and make it better.