I am no jazz aficionado. Confronted with a more esoteric piece of jazz noodling I tend to think of the late, great Tony Wilson’s maxim that “Jazz is the last refuge of the untalented: jazz musicians enjoy themselves far more than anyone listening to them does.” Chet Baker was an American singer and trumpet player who emerged as a key figure in the West Coast scene of the fifties in the slipstream of Miles Davis’s seminal record ‘Birth of the Cool’. Perhaps because so many associated with the scene were white it was dismissed by many jazz purists, he would never achieve the same approbation in those circles as Coltrane or Charlie Parker, but I’ve always been a fan of Baker’s mellow vocals, elegant trumpet melodies and the effortless “beautiful loser” chic that comes through in his records.
Bruce Weber’s LET’S GET LOST documents the final year of Baker’s life, spent mostly in exile in Europe. His star burnt brief and bright in the fifties before hard drugs, and the procurement thereof, became the focus of his life rather than music. Interviews with Baker and his entourage are intercut with swinging performances from the fifties and sixties along with clips from cheesy Italian films he appeared in for the paycheck from the same period. It may be that Weber’s grainy black and white photography does him no favours, but the contrast between his former matinee idol looks and the extra in a Peckinpah Western he has become by the eighties is jarring. From James Dean to Mark E Smith – the demise of the cool.
As the opening line goes, “Everybody has a story about Chet Baker…”, and it seems the man has a few himself. He tells us how he got out of the army almost by using the Blackadder “underpants on head” trick: “it was a tricky business to keep from getting the shock treatments and at the same time getting what I wanted, which was out of the army”. The main reason he wanted out? He found out that the only way to get high as a soldier was by sniffing gasoline fumes from the trucks. He recollects how he got his teeth knocked out fighting for his life against a disgruntled gang of LA dope pushers. Except, in a brilliant Rashomon-like succession of talking heads, one former acquaintance after another comes along and tells a completely different version of the story. However it happened, it devastated his career as he could no longer play the trumpet properly and basically had to re-teach himself the instrument, after he could bear to raise it to his lips again.
Over the course of the film as Baker opens up various ex-wives and children come out of the woodwork and the message seems to be consistent: as one ex-girlfriend puts it “You really can’t rely on Chet. If you know that then you can pull through.” The sad thing is that Baker accepts it too, he is not kidding himself. It all makes for a very raw documentary; the look on his mother’s face as Weber asks her “Did your son make you proud?” and she has to answer no; the uncomfortable scene as the filmmakers talk to a depressed Baker about getting him extra methadone delivered to his hotel room and Weber just leaves the camera running.
Shortly before the film’s release Chet Baker died by falling or jumping from an Amsterdam hotel window. Despite its brutally personal nature, LET’S GET LOST stands as a testament to a legendary musician as well as a great investigation into the destructive power of genius. And the soundtrack isn’t bad either.