(1988) dir. Bruce Weber
viewed: 01/22/08 at The Castro Theatre, SF, CA
I didn’t get into jazz until I was 24, though I’d had friends who’d been trying to get me interested in it for a long time before. One of the first discoveries I made, among John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and others, was Chet Baker. And his name was familiar to me as this film had played at the Castro with some frequency when I first moved to San Francisco. A friend of mine at the time had swooned over it, recommending it highly. So, I’d been wanting to see it for some time. But, according to the Castro’s current pamphlet, it hasn’t been screened theatrically (at least here) in 14 years and it’s not available on DVD as yet (though I imagine that will change soon). This was one of the rare random times that I just glance that day at what is playing at the Castro and not only want to see the film that is there but can go see the film that is there. It usually takes planning.
The film is a documentary, shot by noted photographer Bruce Weber in what turned out to be the last year of jazz great, Chet Baker’s life. It’s a stunning portrait in many respects, contrasting the movie star good looks of the young, immensely talented Baker in the early 1950’s to the completely ravaged, yet still beautifully gifted man who failed to live to see 60.
The film has a looseness, a jazz quality, with the softness of Baker’s own voice and trumpet style, flitting over the iconic images of Baker’s young, chiseled good looks, while his music plays in the background and oral reminiscences overlap. Even the contemporary images are filmed in a dramatic black-and-white, the contrast of Baker’s haggard face, his hair tousled in the wind, sitting in the back of a classic convertible, a girl on either side of his dreamy, sleepy face. Weber uses a style that idolates, yet allows for objective glimpses, contrasting the young, ideal with the broken down, tragic, and highly flawed man of that time.
All people in the film are drawn to Baker, his image, his visage, his talent, his style. Throughout the years, the ups and downs, people are drawn to him like a beacon. Weber interviews the photographer who recognized Baker’s star quality from the earliest times and shot the pictures that adorn many of his albums. The women, the many, many women, drawn to his beauty, his needs.
But Baker’s drug addiction, he praises the speedball as the ultimate high, ravaged him. The beating that he took in 1968, that knocked out all of his teeth, nearly destroying his career completely, is peered at from a couple of angles. His redemptions are also not without flaws. The women that he used and abused, his abandoned children for whom he has nothing. The picture of Baker is that of a user, not just drugs, but of people, too.
Yet while it doesn’t try to be a complete picture of Baker’s life, its perspective is one of appreciation, attraction, and sympathy, while accepting the inherent flaws, mistakes, badnesses of his life. There is an ethereal sensibility in its style, both of narrative, and time, criss-crossing back and forth between the “now” of 1987 and the past of Baker’s music and life. I have to say that I found the film very beautiful, very sad, and moving. The music is still alive in my ears. At the end of the film, Baker, at Cannes, plays “Almost Blue”, complaining about the audience not being quiet and appreciating the music. The performance is stunning, even in his late years, having lost the sweet lightness that his voice had achieved early on, he still, slightly slurred, yet perfectly beautiful, his enunciation and style. Amazing.