The crown prince of nonchalance

Chet Baker's life unfurls in pain and joy on the big screen

As with artists in other fields, the jazz musician's "natural expression" is almost always arrived at through practice that verges on prayer. Whether it's Charlie Parker woodshedding in his youth or Sonny Rollins' legendary regimen in his 70s, it's a biographic fixture ... well, most of the time.

Exceptions include Chet Baker, a crown prince of nonchalance, the rarest of the rare, a natural natural. And one watches Let's Get Lost wondering if, for Baker, the ease of achieving it all is somehow linked to his frittering it all away.

Fashion photographer-turned-filmmaker Bruce Weber couldn't have made Baker's final years glamorous if he'd wanted to. Instead, it's as if he wants us to feel whiplashed as the screen jerks across the decades from the pretty California boy that photographers snapped at in his 20s and the weathered man in his late 50s; garish lighting turns his facial lines into canyons. The long takes in interviews more often than not mark how little memorable Baker now has to say.

Baker was big in the 1950s and could have been bigger. In his truncated version of things, he played his first gig with Charlie Parker — his second in the legendary Gerry Mulligan quartet that made both men stars. It was just drums, bass and two horns spinning melodies in the air without an enveloping cloud of guitar or piano chords. When Baker started singing in his soft whisper, almost a vapor, his spell-casting was complete. With his brooding good looks, he was James Dean with a brass mouthpiece. A screenwriter named Lawrence Trimble recalls the young lady sitting next to him in a Paris club telling him to shush and announcing she was in love with that bad-boy trumpeter on the stage. Trimble understood — he, too, was smitten.

But this was a guy who screwed up so badly with junk, jail and various betrayals that he was unavailable to star in the movie that was to be based on his life. (It became All the Fine Young Cannibals with Robert Wagner as Chad Bixby.) And while Weber doesn't chart all the career ups and downs that followed, he mines the lowest of the lows: teeth knocked out in a drug-related beating, Baker was reduced to years of odd jobs until he could play again.

Along with the damage Baker did to himself, anyone who got close seems to have paid as well. "He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful," someone says. We hear from ex-wives and girlfriends, some dwelling more than others on the "trouble," none denying it. We meet a gleefully resentful daughter. We meet his mother, decked in her high-collared Sunday finest, beaming as she talks about Chet's early life and his accomplishment. She's asked whether he was a disappointment as a son. After an awkward pause: "Yes, but let's not go into that."

Originally released in 1988 and nominated for a documentary Oscar, Let's Get Lost still succeeds with stunning musical performances and the rhythms Weber finds in speech and silence, light and shadow. Long unavailable and now restored, it's neither hagiography nor a simple cautionary tale — it's as devastatingly complex as its subject.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 Thursday, March 6, and 9:30 Friday-Saturday, March 7-8. Call 313-833-3237.

W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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