Jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker left many disappointed friends and broken-hearted lovers in his wake. In the 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost, smoky-voiced chanteuse Ruth Young gives a pragmatic reason for her decision to hook up with him: "It would be like living with Picasso – the closest I could get to greatness."
Young probably knew that Picasso was a terror to live with as well, and Let's Get Lost suggests the comparison works on more than one level. Weber's film, long unavailable on VHS and receiving a 20th-anniversary re-release in select theaters and on video, offers a tribute to Baker's music and charisma without offering excuses for his personal behavior.
Director Bruce Weber's greatest influence is as a fashion photographer, with a signature style of shirtless, full-lipped models shot in black-and-white for the likes of Calvin Klein. He shot Let's Get Lost in black-and-white as well, and comes across as fascinated with Baker's youthful looks as he was his musicianship. In an early scene, a photographer looks over proof sheets from a 1953 photo session and recalls Baker's magnetic appearance in an echo of the filmmaker's own fascination. Throughout the 1950s, Baker drew comparisons to James Dean with a trumpet.
So at first we wonder, who's that craggy-faced, mustached, groggy-looking man we keep seeing slumped in the back of the convertible? He looks like an extra from a spaghetti Western. He is, in fact, Baker at the time Weber filmed him in the 1980s, his features ravaged by age, injury and an enduring drug habit. As Weber trails Baker around Southern California, Europe and various recording studios, Let's Get Lost flashes back to his early career and gets an earful from friends and loved ones.
The film's loose, meandering style and its shadowy cinematography are nearly enough to put you into a trance. Like many jazz films (Clint Eastwood's Bird is another), Let's Get Lost tries to emulate that nightclubby, 'round-midnight vibe of the music and let the story flow intuitively, like jazz improvisation. The attitude that narrative structure is for squares can try your patience, but Baker's story becomes more queasily compelling the more the film goes on.
Certainly his music is worth trailing after. A colleague from his early days says that Baker on the trumpet sounded like a history of jazz, "Louis Armstrong, Bunny Berigan and Bix Beiderbecke, all rolled into one." Baker's singing voice proves even more distinctive with the low, slow way he draws out lyrics, like he's dragging on a cigarette: "Imagination is funny / It maaaaakes a cloudy day sunny."
The more Let's Get Lost touches on such rough-and-tumble anecdotes and listens to the weary stories of spurned loved ones, the more compellingly flawed the portrait becomes. When Weber asks Baker's mother, "Did he disappoint you as a son?" his mother pauses before admitting, "Yes, he did." Baker's exes and children hint at comparable wounds; his all-but-abandoned daughter describes some hilariously bad blood between the siblings and Ruth Young.
Baker seems almost completely disinterested in his family, although he expresses nostalgia for other musicians. When he recalls a long list of colleagues from the old days, and later in the film identifies musicians who have recently died, the film resembles an affecting roll call of both jazz legends and unsung side men. Let's Get Lost turned out to be an elegy for Baker as well; the trumpet player suffered a fatal fall from an Amsterdam hotel room in 1988, not long after the film's completion.
Despite Baker's personal failings, Let's Get Lost feels like a love letter to the musician, lingering over images from his early age as well as his renditions of songs such as Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue," and conveys the mystique of Baker in his early age. Even though Chet Baker clearly inspired deep feelings, Let's Get Lost is not a very funny valentine.