The Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary Let’s Get Lost—which has just been re-released on DVD from Cinedigm, both on its own and as part of the Bruce Weber Collection box set—isn’t a conventional documentary profile so much as a dreamy fantasia on the idea of Chet Baker that glides past its subject’s fatal flaws in a wash of adolescent romanticism and swooning hero-worship. It’s a lovestruck fan’s act of devotion more than an exercise in journalism. Let’s Get Lost all but apologizes for having to acknowledge intermittently that, yes, its heroically framed and lit subject was an emotionally and physically abusive junkie who left a trail of devastation in his wake. But oh, those cheekbones! That satiny voice! That heavenly charm! Who wouldn’t love a man like that and forgive him just about everything, as Let’s Get Lost clearly does?
Like so many sensitive souls through the decades, superstar photographer Bruce Weber is rapturously in love with the fantasy of Chet Baker, the obscenely blessed young man with a horn who looked like an even more ethereally beautiful James Dean, sang like an angel, loved fast cars and fast women, and embodied all the clichés about tormented, hard-living artists. Baker was too good to be true: Great jazz trumpeters weren’t supposed to look like Troy Donahue, or sing soft, pretty love songs in a sensuous purr. Baker was too beautiful, to the point where his beauty veered into kitsch; his matinee-idol looks and enduring appeal to teenage girls have gotten him pegged as a lightweight and a pretender, a Hollywood conception of a great jazz trumpeter rather than the real thing.
By the time Weber caught up with Baker in the mid-1980s, decades of heroin addiction and hard living had exacted a terrible toll on his body and mind. A far cry from the pretty boy of the 1950s, Baker wore the scars of a difficult life on his worn face, but in his decay there was still a weathered beauty.
Baker doesn’t say much in Let’s Get Lost. He doesn’t seem prone to candor or self-reflection, and the few words the filmmakers do get out of him appear to be ripped from somewhere deep within his soul. It seems to be agonizing for Baker to talk about the past, as if every anecdote robs him of something essential he can never get back. So instead of talking to him, Weber spends a lot of time simply looking at him, both as a young man in film clips and photos, and as a prematurely aged old man. Weber films Baker in convertibles, on the beach, in nightclubs, and the studio, in the sun and surrounded by vibrant young people, including musician Flea and Tim Burton muse Lisa Marie.
Baker is reluctant to talk about his past trauma, but the women he loved, betrayed, and abandoned are eager to discuss their lives with him and the psychic damage they incurred along the way. Baker’s ex-wives and ex-lovers (many of them musicians and singers themselves, like Ruth Young), talk about a man whose addictions and narcissism rendered him callous and cruel to the people who loved him, and whose charm and beauty were themselves a form of deceit. They speak of an inveterate liar, manipulator, and con man who served his addictions and compulsions rather than his family or his prodigious, oft-squandered talent.
The words are damning, but the parade of heartbreaking, stunning images tell a different story, putting a halo over Baker’s devil horns and attributing a dewy heroism he has done nothing to deserve. Thanks in no small part to the wall-to-wall Baker music on the soundtrack, Let’s Get Lost sustains a delicate mood of beautiful pain from start to finish. The film represents a lyrical dance of sound and image rooted as much, if not more, in Weber’s photography background as in the documentary tradition. It takes nothing away from the film to assert that it often feels like a long music video or perfume commercial: Weber’s trade is in breathtaking images, and at its best, Let’s Get Lost feels like a melancholy waking dream from which no one would want to wake up.
Where the film fails as journalism or biography, that’s because Weber doesn’t appear particularly interested in either. It’s a cinematic love song, pure and simple, and Weber isn’t about to let ugly facts get in the way of a parade of gorgeous images and intoxicating ideas. As a photographer above all else, his solidarity is clearly to image above substance, and in Let’s Get Lost, he willfully, poignantly chooses a beautiful lie over a grim reality.
A lovely photo-book insert filled with images of Baker and words from the film, as well as brief recollections from Weber, whose enormous fondness for Baker is evident.