Let's Get Lost Review

A reminder that falsely poignant, desperately mainstream films like Ray and Walk the Line are, unavoidably, pure horseshit, Bruce Weber's 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost is the musical biopic as it should be. Quietly profound, unapologetic, and only as glamourous as its subject allows, the film dissects jazz trumpeter Chet Baker with a photographer's eye, telling lies and correcting them at the same time. While Baker is almost a dream cinematic subject, Weber's decisions echo as timelessly in the right. The refusal to either entirely portray a man whose talent always outweighed his success as sympathetic or simply pathetic is shown to be much more effective than rigidly sticking to a particular point of view. Baker may be forever symbolic as a missed opportunity, a musical James Dean who crashed himself instead of his speedster, but Weber lets him regain some of that attention with only limited interruptions into how he screwed things up.

Shot in grainy cool black and white, Let's Get Lost details Chet Baker's rise and fall via a loose narrative peppered with vintage photographs from William Claxton, occasional film clips, and on-camera interviews with notable participants, including Baker himself. Though he's only 57 during the filming, the haggard musician's face looks perhaps a couple of decades older, the result of hard living and harder consequences. It's difficult to know what to make of our star initially. He once looked like an Adonis, impossibly youthful and handsome, yet we see this craggy old man aged beyond his years. We hear his voice and his trumpet, both a touch or more off his prime but still effective. If there's anything the uninitiated should take away from Weber's film most of all, it's how soulful and convincing his music could be. Even now, his best songs are an emotional Rorschach test that define our moods and nights. To overlook Chet Baker is to overlook both the sadness and complex introspection of life.

But Weber manages to simultaneously threaten and encourage that view, doesn't he? The viewer exits Let's Get Lost with a perspective of Baker the man as several units less than admirable. His own mother confesses her disappointment. His marriages and relationships were all apparently wrecked. We see some of his children, living in Baker's home state of Oklahoma, and none really seem to have any kind of meaningful relationship with their father. Other children are out there, too. One son is mentioned by Baker as supposedly having a nice singing voice, as though the father hadn't actually heard his progeny perform. The others characterise their brother as nomadic, popping in once a year so completely unannounced, not unlike their father. Failed husband, failed father, Baker is portrayed as respecting only two things - his trumpet and his drugs.

The drugs are almost conspicuously danced around in the film. They come up, inevitably and unavoidably, but more with the sense of effect than cause. The most telling aspect of Baker's drug use may be near the end when Weber is interviewing him and asks his subject about the most dangerous high he's had. Baker responds that it's a speedball, a mixture of heroin and cocaine. But something within the man while he's almost joyously relating this piece of information doesn't sit right. He's quite clearly an addict still unrecovered. His life has been debilitated by heroin and other drugs, yet here he seems to light up at the chance to talk about getting high. An incredibly sad coda, that Baker did actually die with heroin and cocaine in his body in May of 1988, the same year Let's Get Lost was released, unintentionally informs everything shown in the film.

Weber wisely saves Baker's death until a screen of text at the very end and he only lets the addiction aspect slowly seep into his portrayal. The director is savvy enough to realise that watching an asshole musician descend into the valley of drug dependency is just about the least interesting way to paint Chet Baker. So he meanders along with deliberate interludes into Baker's charismatic youth. We hear stories of his military service ending after he was declared "unadaptable to army life" and how he played with Charlie Parker in New York. Dizzy Gillespie's lasting friendship comes up, as well, but not as braggadocio. Weber certainly paints Baker as the musical God he was and remains even twenty years after death. In this respect, the film should be admired for not only establishing Baker's darker demons, but also reveling in how gifted an artist he was. Baker's music plays throughout the film, often artfully presented against images of a mustached older version of the trumpeter, and it's never less than moving.

It's also to Weber's credit that he keeps the music as such a focal point of the film. Subtle exploration of the many shortcomings in Baker's life are there for the taking, but they remain on the fringe to flesh out his life and not to define it. Part of the fascination in viewing the film is trying to determine whether it's intending to show Chet Baker the man or the musician. This question isn't really answered definitively, and I suppose it need not be as long as both aspects are sufficiently explored. The actual performance footage from the 1950s is limited, and mostly includes just some photographs and a few film appearances, but there are instances when we see the aged Baker pick up his trumpet and perform. Fans of Baker's music will find everything along these lines to be magical. The struggle is with such a stark portrait of his life and personality, and how that affects everything else. It's really just another facet, a closing chapter to a life we all knew was imperfect. From a pure filmic perspective, Weber accomplishes exactly what he must have hoped for by ambiguously presenting a man whose legacy has outlived his career. Those who admiringly look at Baker as some sort of broken ideal may have more difficulty in reconciling a man who seemed to voluntarily relinquish everything in exchange for the classic downfall of drugs and women. Regardless, Let's Get Lost must be the definitive account of Chet Baker for now, and it's highly unlikely that any possible fictional attempt will come close to the raw product found in Weber's film.

The Disc

Let's Get Lost has been completely out of circulation and difficult to see outside of VHS for around fifteen years now. Bruce Weber has collaborated directly with Metrodome in releasing this and several other films of his finally onto DVD. This new R2 PAL release is the first official DVD of the film in the world, with even a U.S. version still yet to be announced.

The first thing you notice about Metrodome's presentation of Let's Get Lost is that it looks a tad old-fashioned. Filmed in black and white, at the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the documentary mostly seems like it could exist at any time or place. Much of it retains a good deal of grain and images can often appear obscured by the darkness. This isn't a bad thing, however, and the overall presentation merits a decidedly positive reaction. Black levels are excellent and the source print has been cleaned up a great deal, showing only mild dirt and debris on rare occasions. The main complaint is failure to properly convert from NTSC to PAL, resulting in a full 120 minutes of runtime and noticeable combing in the process. Even on my deinterlacing machine some of the photo collage scenes seemed unnaturally jerky. That aside, and it's obviously a significant complaint, Let's Get Lost looks perfectly natural in this release, and any other perceived shortcomings are likely to be inherent or intentional.

Keeping with its original audio, Metrodome gives the film an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track as the sole listening option. For the most part, everything comes through clearly, but I was disappointed to discover how uneven the volume shifts throughout the picture. Initially, dialogue can be difficult to hear, even to the point of requiring subtitles, but as the film progresses, the sound elevates to a louder level in both dialogue and music, only to occasionally dip back down. I would imagine this is again a consequence of how the recordings were obtained, but it's still an annoyance. Otherwise, the track sounds quite good and, particularly, the bass in the songs does well in making its presence known. For those more quiet moments, an English language subtitle track is included, and is white in colour. The bonus features are, regrettably, not subtitled.

Looking at the list of extras Metrodome has given Let's Get Lost it might seem to be a well-outfitted release. On the contrary, most of what's here is fairly inconsequential and quite brief. Only the main supplement, entitled "Looking Again for Chet in All the Familiar Places" (24:27), shows any kind of unique addition to the film. The piece runs nearly 25 minutes and might be described as a creators' postscript to the film. Bruce Weber and Nan Bush talk to each other about Baker, the filming, the use of young people like Flea and Viggo Mortensen in the background of some scenes, etc. while clips and photos play. It's not a typical DVD featurette kind of thing, and though I think that's to be admired, it does leave the viewer a bit frustrated for a lack of actual insight instead of vague reaction and remembrances.

The remaining bonus material is really of no help. "Jeff Preiss Presents: Let's Get Lost Kodachrome Newsreel" (5:08) is a short, jazz-scored video of some colour footage shot on the set. Weber's short film "The Teddy Boys of the Edwardian Drape Society" (4:20) doesn't bear direct relation to Let's Get Lost or Baker, but is in that same artistic style. A pair of music videos recycles moments from the film, as both "Almost Blue" (3:48) and "Everything Happens to Me" (3:41) are nice to hear, but feel odd when excised from the movie. Trailers for Let's Get Lost (2:57) and Weber's other films - Broken Noses (3:14), Chop Suey (1:56), and A Letter to True (2:09), all available on DVD or soon-to-be from Metrodome - feel mostly like nice little advertisements.

Additionally, a "booklet of Chet Baker photos and in some packs exclusive postcards of Chet Baker" was announced in the press release and presumably can be found for those purchasing the disc. Working from a check disc, I can't confirm or weigh in on that particular front.

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