Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1988. Little Bear Productions, Nan Bush. Cinematography by Jeff Preiss. Produced by Bruce Weber. Production Design by Sam Shahid. Film Editing by Angelo Corrao. Academy Awards 1988. Toronto International Film Festival 1988.
Bruce Weber spent months following Chet Baker, one of the most successful and venerated trumpet players in the history of jazz music, throughout a number of performances around the world for this slow-moving but thoughtful documentary. Shot beautifully in black and white (likely dictating the style for Madonna’s Truth or Dare three years later), it gives us the standard highs and lows of jazz biography, covering Baker’s early successes that led to his worldwide fame as well as his constant trouble with the law thanks to a drug addiction he was never able to shake off. A career that had as many hot periods as it did low (including stints working gas station jobs), Baker had a series of volatile relationships (including three wives) that are given as much detail as his incredible performances. Weber uses deep, glamorous shadows to make a romantic figure of this lost soul, a well deserved appreciation given the power of both his playing and his beautiful singing, but before letting him become an untouchable hero of the Beat generation Weber also makes sure to include feedback from the destruction he left in in his wake: “You really can’t rely on Chet,” former girlfriend Diane Vavra says, “And if you know that, then you can pull through.” Baker himself is a willing and unpretentious onscreen presence, giving great interviews even when clearly under the influence, and there are terrific sequences of listening to his vocalizing some gorgeous standards of the genre during what turned out to be the last year of his life. It’s a heartfelt, melancholy film, though watching someone this damaged and unwilling to do much about it is a lot to take for 120 long minutes and it won’t work for everyone.