There’s a moment in Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s shimmeringly decadent and fascinating portrait of the West Coast jazz legend Chet Baker (it’s being given a limited national rerelease), that pushes the concept of cool to a greater extreme than I’ve ever witnessed. At 57, the dreamy, ravaged, whispery-voiced Baker, with his junkie’s caved-in face, its creases and lines running like a spider web over the contours of those still-regal bones, relates the tale of how, in 1968, he got his teeth knocked out. He was on his way to score drugs, and five men, attempting to rip him off, gave him a pummeling, smashing him in the mouth, which caused such damage that the remaining broken tooth stubs all had to be pulled out. His ability to play the trumpet was ruined (though not, as it turns out, permanently).
This story, which may well be apocryphal (over the years, Baker told many different versions of it), is enough to make you wince in pain. Yet Baker, who sings in the softest, smokiest tenor imaginable, delivers it in that same velvet late-night jazz-club voice, finessing the words into an act of seduction, reducing his tragedy to a life’s-a-beautiful-bitch shrug. He turns the awful tale into a number. This is called keeping your cool right up to the grave.
I hadn’t seen Let’s Get Lost since it first came out, in 1988, and what I remembered, mostly, was the downbeat glory of the movie’s textures: the soft, painterly Santa Monica light, rendered in a deep-grained black and white that makes the past merge right into the present; the ghostly photos and film footage of Baker in his matinee-hipster prime, when he was the underground James Dean with a horn, only with a wider jaw and steely, haunted eyes. The bits in which Baker hangs out with fawning L.A. trendies, a young Lisa Marie and Flea among them, are awkward. What I hadn’t recalled — or, more accurately, hadn’t appreciated — is the way that Weber created just about the only documentary that works like a novel, inviting you to read between the lines of Baker’s personality until you touch the secret sadness at the heart of his beauty. A-