Call it The Death of the Cool. Shot as the vinyl LP was nearing the off ramp to oblivion, as rap and MTV were shoving jazz even farther to the margins, Let’s Get Lost stands as a gorgeous gravestone for the Beat Generation’s legacy of beautiful-loser chic. Bruce Weber’s transfixing 1988 portfolio of the artist—ravaged jazz trumpeter Chet Baker—as a junkie wraith unmoored in time seems doubly poignant almost 20 years later, when the bloom of its own newness is gone.
Let’s Get Lost, which has been MIA for 14 years and has resisted collectible enshrinement on DVD, remains a stunning object of scrutiny in its new Film Forum revival. It’s the music doc as film noir, with a vampirish city-of-night gleam that suits the subject and his darkly romantic sound. All these years later, the inky shadows and stabbing high-contrast light of Jeff Preiss’s black-and-white camera work still look as if they’d been freshly dredged from the undertow of Baker’s long good-bye.
In his 1950s heyday, Baker had epitomized West Coast “cool jazz.” As a vocalist, his high-pitched, low-volume crooning was edgily intimate: If Sinatra were said to be singing from the next barstool, Baker sang from the adjacent pillow. It wasn’t lost on record execs and magazine editors (and a succession of exasperated women) that he had camera-hugging pretty-boy-pugilist looks—a provocative combination of soft and hard, an admirer tells Weber, in an age that prized jock masculinity.
By the time of filming, smack had turned Baker’s dreamboat face to a drawn, hollow-cheeked death mask. Yet there is beauty in the vestigial traces where beauty has been—and the impermanence of beauty is Weber’s true subject. Let’s Get Lost artfully intercuts brooding studies of the gaunt latter-day Baker, shortly before he fell to his death from an Amsterdam hotel window in 1988, with bits of pop ephemera made priceless by his decline. Here is Baker, fucked-up and frail, propped like a haggard prince between babes in a convertible’s backseat; here is Baker, movie-star luscious, young forever in clips from The Steve Allen Show and the Italian B-movie Urlatori alla sbarra. Which is the ghost, and which is the haunted?
The haunted, of course, is Weber, who addresses Baker’s ex-wives and girlfriends with the tone of someone bound to them by a secret love. Baker emerges as the ideal Weber has pursued throughout his career: When his other subjects appear in cameos, from Broken Noses boxer Andy Minsker to Chris Isaak, their similarity practically turns them into doppelgängers reveling in the youth that Baker had long since pissed away. But his is a clear-eyed love. Baker, a practiced manipulator, comes across as not only an addict but an addiction: As his torch-singer ex Ruth Young tartly puts it, “It took me about 20 minutes to get hooked.” For first-time viewers of Weber’s entrancing after-hours mood piece, it won’t take nearly that long.