September 22, 2002


by James Gavin
Photo by Raymond Ross

IN ''Let's Get Lost,'' his 1989 documentary about Chet Baker, the fashion photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber shows a photograph so erotic that his camera all but drools over it. There stands Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer who was one of the first beautiful 1950's rebels, captured at his peak of allure by another photographer, William Claxton. Tanned, athletic and 26, Baker poses shirtless beside his wife, Halema. His cool half-smile seduces the viewer.

No one seemed to notice the rest of the contact sheet from which the 1956 photograph was taken, even though the sheet was scanned in the film. Several images show Baker glaring out demonically. He had just started a heroin habit that would keep growing until 1988, when he landed, dead, on the pavement below an Amsterdam hotel window. That mysterious end -- suicide, accident or murder? -- added one more romantic touch to the mythology of one of the most unromantic men who ever lived.

Before Baker's death, Mr. Weber had spent a million dollars chasing an illusion that the trumpeter's photos and records still inspire. In so doing, Mr. Weber, whether intentionally or not, made a powerful statement about the dangers of idol worship. Seeing a rare screening of ''Let's Get Lost'' at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month was a reminder of just how prophetic it had been about today's pop culture. We live in an age of worshiping glossy surfaces, of pretending that beauty itself signifies some profound human dimension. Interviewers vie for access to the latest movie hunk, desperate to uncover the mystique they find in his handsome face on screen. He offers only rigidly controlled, vapid responses. The less he reveals, the more he convinces us of hidden depths that may not be there at all.

On ''Behind the Music,'' VH1's popular series of rock-star documentaries, glamorous pop celebrities expose too much, with the same empty results. It has made self-destruction a public-relations cliché, with the pretense of showing that worldly wisdom comes from alcohol and drug abuse. The music seldom bears this out. Yet we pack arenas to see these stars in person, and end up adoring them in two-dimensions, on huge video screens. Increasingly, they aren't even singing but lip-synching to recordings.

Chet Baker's playing and singing, flawed as they could be, hadn't a hint of phoniness. They were stark, poetic, as luscious to the ear as he once was to the eye. His life was another matter. Unlike other fabled drug casualties (Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix), Baker didn't give much cause for sympathy. He was known to abuse women, to lie, steal and con, as most addicts do. By his 40's, he had turned into a ravaged scarecrow, unrepentant about the trail of sorrow he had left behind. Still, people flocked to him, determined to find the Chet Baker they wanted him to be.

So it was with Mr. Weber. His most famous images -- the athletic, clean-cut young men in the Calvin Klein underwear ads -- all seem like reincarnations of early Baker. For ''Let's Get Lost,'' he filmed Baker swaggering along the roof deck of the Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., blowing his horn toward mountains and sea like some eternal beach boy. Mr. Weber directed Lisa Marie, then a teenage supermodel, and Cherry Vanilla, a sexy former punk singer, to paw Baker in the back seat of an open convertible. ''He was bad, he was trouble, and he was beautiful!'' Cherry says.

There in close-up is the Baker of the late 80's: stoned, slurring and cadaverous, yet obviously hard to resist. Girlfriends, colleagues, his estranged wife and mother remain dazzled, even as they reel off the ways he had let them down. Far less starry-eyed is Ruth Young, the brainy, acid-tongued jazz singer who lived with Baker from 1973 through 1982. Mr. Weber outfitted her to look like a jazz groupie of the 50's, with dangling earrings, a blonde chignon and a skimpy black cocktail dress. But she slices through the myth by quoting one of Baker's favorite songs, ''My Foolish Heart,'' about the ''line between love and fascination'' that an infatuated lover can't see.

''Love and fascination: you said it, baby,'' remarks Ms. Young. ''That's the mystique. But that isn't necessarily real. And that's what takes a long, long time to figure out.''

Often we prefer the mystique. Forty years after her death, writers still pore over the life and career of Marilyn Monroe, layering her every move and utterance with deep meaning. But how much was really there? In films she was a creation of lighting and makeup, with enough hints of vulnerability to set imaginations awhirl. Her early, self-inflicted death gave a tragic dimension to all that came before. To question this, as Ms. Young does in her analysis of Baker, can make people very angry -- for when we look at our idols, don't we see a reflection of what we ourselves wish we were? ''There is no life behind the celebrity, 99 percent of the time,'' Ms. Young insists.

Even after months of dealing with Baker's drug problems and demands for money, Mr. Weber was still spellbound. Before their last interview, Baker had made no secret that he was out of drugs and in severe withdrawal. On camera, Mr. Weber tells him how hard it is to see him looking so ill.

''Well, Bruce, you want me to level with you and tell you the truth,'' Baker says, annoyed. ''But in doing that, it only creates pain on your part.'' Having to live up to the fantasies of others, Baker says, ''is a big drag.'' It was almost as if this object of so many daydreams saw himself more clearly than anyone around him.