Thursday, October 18, 2007

Black and White and Blue All Over

(Bruce Weber, US, 1988, 35mm, 119 mins.)


Almost blue / It's almost touching it will almost do
There's a part of me that's always true...always.

-- Chet Baker sings Elvis Costello


It's too bad, really, that Bruce Weber has become best known for his
Abercrombie & Fitch photographs. They all look the same. The male
models have muscular bodies, smooth chests, and square jaws. Their
hair is usually tousled. Their pants usually hang off their hips. It's a look.
It's a lifestyle. It says: I'm good looking, totally vain, and possibly braindead.

That description doesn't apply to slightly-built jazz man Chesney
"Chet" Baker, Jr.
Okay, he was movie-star handsome in his heyday, but
he wasn't stupid and nor was he devoid of talent. If his version of "My
Funny Valentine" doesn't break your heart, you're one stony cat. Others
have sung it with greater finesse, but few with more aching vulnerability.

The Weber/A&F/Calvin Klein ideal
Oddly enough, though, his Oklahoma offspring (two boys and one girl) resemble
A&F models-or at least they did in 1987. But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's unlikely Weber, the director of Broken Noses and Chop Suey, would mind. His newly-restored documentary also ping-pongs through time. It's an increasingly trendy technique that comes across as unnecessarily convoluted in the wrong hands, but Weber's film plays more like musical improvisation than conventional biography.
He starts by contrasting the pretty trumpeter of the 1950s with the rumpled
vocalist of the 1980s. Since all of the footage is in black and white, the transitions are seamless. In fact, though a few subjects reference the 1960s and 1970s,
Weber avoids the color era altogether. Instead, when he isn't excavating archival material (stills, TV appearances, and film clips) or shooting interviews, he sets
their words to seemingly random images. Baker liked dogs-as does Weber-so there's a scene set in Santa Monica, in which Jeff Preiss's camera captures some puppies at play. The owner is never identified. It shouldn't work, but it does.
I couldn't say for sure what Baker was doing during those lost years.
Associates suggest he was shooting smack, working menial jobs, and avoid-
ing his four kids (he also had a son with his first wife). Weber concentrates
on Baker's most famous personas-the popular musician of the past and
the cult figure of the present-before exploring his family life. Along the way,
he speaks with two of his significant girlfriends. And once Ruth Young hits the
screen, the whole thing comes alive. Not that Let's Get Lost was dead before, but Baker was a heroin addict. When he talks, he talks very...verrrry...slooowwwly.
Weber and friends
The fuzzy-haired singer waxes rhapsodic about their tawdry times together. She's certainly a ballsy chick, but Young seems reliable enough. Baker's ex-wife, however, presents a darker side to the Ruth-and-Chet story. And everything changes. What had seemed like a fairly straightforward narrative, in terms of content rather than chronology, grows more complex. Speakers continue to contradict each other throughout the film-Baker included. Though his recall is surprisingly good.
Nonetheless, the director doesn't answer every question or fill in every
blank-and that must've made jazz fans hot around the collar, since they
live for record labels and session dates-but Weber brings his subject to
gloriously cantankerous life, which is ironic as Baker died shortly after filming wrapped. Because his death was ruled accidental, it's hard to say whether he
was dying during the making of the documentary. I suspect that he was. Only
57 in 1987, the musician looks much older. Which isn't to say he looks terrible.
By the early '70s, his prettiness was gone, but Baker never lost his innate cool.
Nonetheless, most reviews make it sound as if he morphed into some sort of monster. In his otherwise excellent Village Voice piece, Jim Ridley describes Baker's face as a "drawn, hollow-cheeked death mask." The Washington Post's Hal Hinson uses the word "ravaged," adding "scarred by age and hard living." Believe me, it's not that bad. As Ridley qualifies, "Yet there is beauty in the vestigial traces where beauty has been-and the impermanence of beauty is Weber's true subject."
If anything, Weber tries too hard to beautify his portrait by surrounding Baker
with hip young things like actress Lisa Marie and Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea. Those particular sequences do play much like live-action layouts-hey, once
a fashion photographer, always a fashion photographer. Or at least, that's the
world to which Weber has returned. Then again, maybe he only had one great film
in him. In which case, I'm glad he made it, because Let's Get Lost is a great film.
Almost me / Almost you / Almost blue.
-- Elvis Costello, Imperial Bedroom (1982)
Part of the annual series EARSHOT JAZZ FILMS, Let's Get Lost plays the Northwest Film Forum from 10/26-11/1. (A DVD release is planned for later this year.) Other highlights include Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer and Imagine the Sound, Ron Mann's profile of four free jazz proponents. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629.
Images from and The SXSW Film Festival, lyrics from Lyrics Freak.


  1. Two Abercrombie references in one week.
    Well, then, let's make it three...

  2. Thanks for the link! Clever deployment of the flash mob concept.