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“Blame It on My Youth” is the “If I Didn’t Care” of Bruce Weber’s documentary on Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost. Baker’s rendition of the song about regret and longing plays as Weber slowly pans across the jazz legend’s family: elderly mother, grown children, third wife. They’d all loved and been abandoned by Baker at the time they were gathered for an interview, and the camera catches their far-off expressions, wistfulness mixed with sorrow, after they’ve discussed chapters of their lives they would have rather kept buried. The scene is as aching as Baker’s fragile vocals.
The Oscar-nominated documentary was first released in 1988, just after Baker’s death at age 58. (It’s been showing around the country on a 20th anniversary tour.) Though it’s hardly a complete portrait of the trumpet player whose charm, good looks, and natural talent made him an icon of West Coast jazz, it feels like a revelation: With recent musical biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line following narratives so rigid they inspired a parody, it was starting to seem as if there were only one way to tell the story of a musician whose career was filled with drugs and infidelity. Weber’s film, in fact, barely even addresses Baker’s addictions, considering the toll they took. Not directly, anyway. Interview subjects, from lovers to producers to bandmates, occasionally mention heroin or Baker’s ability to manipulate people for money when he was desperate for a high. But Baker’s slow untethering is usually only hinted at through images—the most powerful being a close-up of a craggy-faced Baker in a convertible in 1987, heavy-lidded and muttering to the women flanking him as wind blows through his hair. He’s certainly lost, but Weber couldn’t have known that he was practically gone for good.
The film, shot in black and white, doesn’t follow a linear storyline, instead jumping between the last year of Baker’s life and his rise to fame in the ’50s. As mountains of old photographs are presented, with the glide and zoom of Weber’s camera preventing the display from ever feeling static, even fans may be confused about the beautiful people we’re seeing and how exactly they relate to Baker. But the message of his jet-setting lifestyle and, more crucial, the naturalness of his gift is clear. Thrillingly, Weber provides not only old footage of Baker’s performances but captures him in the studio, the magic of his recording songs such as “Imagination” ruined only by the talking heads that the director misguidedly chose to natter over it at times. It’s a minor annoyance, just like the doc’s refusal to tell Baker’s story chapter and verse. But by the end, you understand that the man was just as enigmatic to those closest to him, and like them, you’re left hungry for more.