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‘Let’s Get Lost’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 02, 1989

In "Let's Get Lost," Bruce Weber's enigmatic, hypnotic film portrait of Chet Baker, the director returns periodically to an ecstatic, romantic image of the jazz musician wedged in the back seat of a Cadillac convertible, the wind in his thinning hair, as the big car plunges into the night.

Captured from the angle of myth, these shots of Baker hold the key to "Let's Get Lost's" entrancing, poetic appeal. Filmed in star-caressing black and white, they borrow from the pop style of '50s Hollywood teen movies, with Baker cast in the role of the antiheroic loner. But there's an even more primal, Dionysian quality about them, too. His eyes half-closed, Baker is visibly enthralled, tending to inner visions. If he's heading anywhere in particular, or if he cares, nothing in his face shows it. He's drifting, far away, lost.

The focal point of these shots -- and the focus of the movie as a whole -- is Baker's ravaged, iconic face. Once movie-idol handsome, now scarred by age and hard living, Baker has the sort of dramatic features that immediately inspire interpretation -- his face speaks volumes.

It also evokes a deluge of contradictions. As a young man, he carried the cool, world-weary allure of James Dean and Montgomery Clift. As an older man -- he was 57 in 1987 when the film was shot -- he looks, at some moments, like one of Edward S. Curtis's noble Indians; at others, like a common drifter.

Weber's mission is to try to piece all these impressions -- plus the film footage, photos and the testimony of family, lovers and friends -- into a dramatic, coherent whole. And what he provides us is rapturous, deeply involving, and more than a little puzzling.

Basically, "Let's Get Lost" is a manifestation of Weber's crush -- a portrait of a pinup. Baker has occupied fantasy space in Weber's head since the photographer was a teenager, and his images of Baker are like his celebrity portraits and his famous Calvin Klein ads -- glossy, '40s-style star portraits with an overlay of smoky, '50s cool. Weber is working here out of a highly specialized interest, and what he means to say about his subject comes to us through layers of ambivalence.

What Weber is analyzing here is an object of erotic fascination. But of all our passions, those involving sex are simultaneously the most durable and the least resistant to scrutiny. As a result, "Let's Get Lost" is an exercise in hagiography that can't help but deconstruct itself. In his work as a photographer, Weber doesn't so much shoot his subjects as apotheosize them. But Baker resists being mythologized in the generically glamorous manner Weber intends.

At the most fundamental level, the real Chet Baker is a kind of nowhere man. He's too insubstantial for Weber to levitate him into greatness. This fact is the source of the film's dramatic tension, and Weber, to his credit, seems to have realized it.

The movie provides the basic outlines of Baker's life, but none of these facts ever attaches itself significantly to a real person. Early on, Baker's style of trumpet playing and singing was marked by a moody insouciance. Later, after years of inactivity -- including the three years it took to learn to play his horn with dentures after all his teeth were knocked out -- the simplicity and straightforwardness of emotion in his playing seemed forced on him by necessity; he sang as he did because that was all the strength he had left in him.

There's more death than sex in Baker's style, though perhaps this is the tragic dimension that comes from knowing that he died last year by falling out of his hotel room window. In "Let's Get Lost," his singing is tender and evocative, but detached. He's singing about some dream of love that he is long past believing in. (In this sense, his rendition of Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" is perfect -- it's about almost feeling something.) He seems equally disembodied speaking into the camera. When near the end Weber asks Baker if he enjoyed making the film, the musician says blandly, "How could I not? ... It was like a dream."

Baker lends his image, his music and his past to "Let's Get Lost" but nothing of himself, and if the movie were about Chet Baker -- the real Chet Baker -- this might have been killing. Instead, the film's true subject is Weber's infatuation; it's about the emotion that, over the years, he has projected onto his idol. These starstruck projections are what we take away from the picture, and the irony is that they're remarkably potent, perhaps partly because we see our own star obsessions mirrored in them. Any illusions that Weber might have had about Chet Baker survive the filmmaker's contact with the flesh-and-blood man. His love is a pure fan's love; everything, even squalor, feeds it. In this sense, Baker has given all of himself that was necessary. For Weber's purposes, the real Chet Baker wasn't irrelevant, but he wasn't that important either.

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