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The Gig: Dream of Life

“It was a dream,” says Chet Baker, in a whispery and faraway tone. “Things like that don’t happen. Just to very few.” Arriving near the end of Bruce Weber’s strange and impressionistic film Let’s Get Lost, the scene and its sentiment feel emblematic. Baker is reflecting on the recent experience of shooting the film, but his words could easily apply to the greater haze of his life and career.

Let’s Get Lost is a documentary that feels like fiction, thanks to the combined contribution of Weber, an icon-savvy photographer, and Baker, an incorrigible self-mythologist.

Film critic Terrence Rafferty calls it “the greatest jive movie, or maybe the jivest great movie, ever made,” and when I saw a new print at New York’s Film Forum, where the work premiered in 1989, that faux tautology made a funny kind of sense. Weber’s film is only partly concerned with Chet Baker. Its chief focus is the idea of Chet Baker, as envisioned by the trumpeter and countless others, the audience included. The hortatory subjunctive of the title is no coincidence; the movie invites us to help construct its central image, to lose ourselves in whatever it is that Baker represents.

Most cinematic portrayals of jazz legends propose a more conventional dramatic arrangement. And so, perversely, they can feel more “real” than Weber’s film. Of course, this is a falsehood for many reasons. On the whole, jazz biopics have nourished an astonishing array of stereotypes, untruths and distortions over the years. Probably the most obvious example is Clint Eastwood’s Bird, on which I’m inclined to side with an affronted Stanley Crouch. (His trenchant review, written for The New Republic in 1989, appears in Crouch’s Basic Civitas compendium Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.)

Aesthetically speaking, the biopic has a hobbled history already. Even recent successes, like Walk the Line and Ray, are clumsy specimens of filmmaking, combining the duller aspects of melodrama and pastiche. No slight to the stars-Joaquin Phoenix was fine as Johnny Cash, and Jamie Foxx was an even better Ray Charles-but the movies they inhabit don’t come close to matching their exertions. (La Vie en Rose, a new Édith Piaf biopic, similarly gets most of its steam from Marion Cotillard’s immersive performance.)

The common jazz variation on this genre presents something more troubling. Over a decade ago Krin Gabbard took on this subject with an essay called “Black and Tan Fantasies: The Jazz Biopic,” which can be found in his book Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago). Among other things, Gabbard identifies a pervasive theme in the jazz-biopic canon: Young white musician discovers jazz, and magically gets rhythm, or freedom. Stretching back 80 years now-to Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer-this narrative convention produced postwar titles like The Glenn Miller Story (1953), The Benny Goodman Story (1955) and The Gene Krupa Story (1959), respectively starring Jimmy Stewart, Steve Allen and Sal Mineo.

On the flip side, black jazz musicians have often been seen as existential heroes held captive by their native genius: Consider Forest Whitaker as Charlie Parker in Bird, or Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. If jazz is salvation for the white musician, then it’s damnation for his black counterpart. Not even Spike Lee could resist this hoary myth: In Mo’ Better Blues, which isn’t a biopic but closely heeds the structure of one, Denzel Washington’s character suffers a devastating beating even though he appears to be a paragon of clean living. One can only hope for more from the Miles Davis biopic that Don Cheadle is said to be directing, with himself assuming the lead.

There have already been some heartening efforts to advance a new breed of jazz biopic, but not without a good deal of struggle. Nearly a dozen years ago, after the publication of his book Jaco: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius (Backbeat), Bill Milkowski found himself in meetings with executives from a number of production companies, one of which optioned a script. “I knew Jaco was a vibrant, funny, hilarious, outrageous character,” Milkowski wrote in a recent e-mail, “and so I didn’t want this screenplay to become a maudlin treatment of yet another jazz ‘genius’ who crashed and burned.” He turned out drafts alone and with a collaborator, but for various reasons the project was transferred from one producing entity to another over the past decade. At the moment it has enthusiastic support but inadequate financing.

Laurie Pepper faced a related series of setbacks after her husband, alto saxophone legend Art Pepper, died 25 years ago. She relays the experience in an introduction to her work-in-progress film Straight Life: The Stories of Art Pepper. “For 10 years I met with producers and agents,” she says evenly, adding, “They thought they knew who Art was: a tragic wild man, a junkie hipster. The real Art loved the truth; I wasn’t going to let them lie about him. So I decided to make the movie myself, and let Art tell the stories himself.”

Pepper, who spearheaded and coauthored her husband’s searingly candid memoir Straight Life (Westview), has been posting bite-size morsels of her film on YouTube: find them at youtube.com/user/straightlife, or at straightlife.org. Together the clips attest to a bravely nonconformist effort, and not just by virtue of the online distribution. The narration really does come from the late saxophonist, courtesy of the same interview tapes that served as source material for the memoir. Visually things get more fanciful, with a hodgepodge of archival photographs, staged reenactments and even 3-D animations.

No one would mistake Straight Life for a slick Hollywood product, but that doesn’t appear to be the aim. In the same way that Weber placed Baker in a livable fantasy, Pepper manages to bestow her husband’s story with equal doses of realism and illusion. She reminds us that the stories we tell about these lives are, in fact, stories. Even if they happen to be true.

Originally Published
Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).