FILMS

Big-screen eulogies

Two fascinating lives get documentary treatment

Brian D. Johnson November 13 1989
FILMS

Big-screen eulogies

Two fascinating lives get documentary treatment

Brian D. Johnson November 13 1989

Big-screen eulogies

FILMS

Two fascinating lives get documentary treatment

When dies the shortly subject after of filming a documentary is completed, the movie suddenly takes on a different dimension. It becomes, for better or worse, a eulogy made with the subject’s collaboration. That is exactly what happened in the case of two feature documentaries opening early this month in

Canadian theatres. Let’s Get Lost and The Final Season explore two extremes of America’s cultural spectrum: jazz and football. Let's Get Lost, which won a 1988 Oscar nomination for best feature documentary, is a portrait of the American trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, a heroin addict who died last year at the age of 58 after mysteriously falling from a hotel window in Amsterdam, on Friday the 13th of May. The Final Season is a portrait of a football team, the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Bandits, and its maverick owner, Toronto entrepreneur John F.

Bassett. Bassett succumbed to cancer at 47 on May 14, 1986, in the same year that his team was dissolved.

It would be hard to find two more dissimilar subjects than Baker and Bassett. But both movies offer fascinating insights that go beyond the respective fields of jazz and football. In each case, the images unfold with a forbidding sense of inevitability. And both movies manage to eviscerate their subjects while displaying obvious affection for them.

Let’s Get Lost is the definitive study of a junkie jazzman. Born in Oklahoma in 1929, the son of a small-time brassmusician father, Baker became famous in the mid-1950s. In Los Angeles, he played in bands featuring saxophonists Charlie Parker and Gerry Mulligan. With his plaintive horn and languid vocals, Baker came to personify cool jazz. His style was that

of the introverted dreamer—tender, vulnerable, almost feminine. He also looked the part, with a face that combined the best of James Dean and Elvis Presley.

It is fitting, then, that the task of filming Baker’s legacy should fall to Bruce Weber, a film-maker infatuated with attitude. He is the American fashion photographer who has given fetishism a designer label with his Calvin Klein advertisements of entangled nudes. Filmed in rich black and white—more black than white—Weber portrays Baker’s life as a high-

contrast swirl of surfaces. He shoots in the hand-held, angular style of classic cinema verité, gracefully intercutting fresh documentary footage with archival material.

Let’s Get Lost offers a few glimpses of the young Baker in vintage film and television clips, including a memorable performance on The Steve Allen Show. There also are some campy

clips from Italian B-movies that featured Baker as a romantic jazzman, and from All the Fine Young Cannibals, a Hollywood drama loosely based on his life story, starring Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. But to reconstruct the Baker of the 1950s, Weber relies heavily on photographs. And his camera swoops over their images with such kinetic energy that they no longer seem like stills.

Moving back and forth between the 1950s and 1980s, the film-maker sets up a violent contrast between the artist as a young Adonis

and as a ravaged junkie—between the smooth and delicate face with art deco cheekbones and the creased, skull-like mask. But Baker’s singing voice remained eerily consistent over the decades. A softer version of the sound that escaped his horn, it was like a lingering sigh.

Interviewing former colleagues and lovers, Weber breezes through a history of Baker’s musical career. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon recalls how much he envied his friend’s intuitive talent. “Everything came easy for Chet,” says Sheldon. “He never practised, he could play every song and he always knew where he was.” But Baker was much less surefooted in his life than in his music. He left behind three failed marriages and fathered four children without helping to raise any of them. In the early 1960s, he was convicted for heroin possession and given a 16-month jail sentence. And in 1968, his career hit its lowest ebb when he lost all his teeth in a brutal assault by thugs in San

Francisco.

In recent years, Baker— along with jazz and the 1950s—swung back into fashion. The stylish flattery of Let’s Get Lost arrives as a last kiss of celebrity. Following Baker from the sands of Santa Monica, Calif., to the beach at Cannes, France, the camera captures him onstage, in the recording studio, and nodding off in the backseat of a convertible. The only time Baker appears truly happy is in a nighttime scene that shows him riding the bumper cars at a West Coast carnival.

Baker seems consistently likable—even in the eyes of those betrayed by him. “Chet cons people,” says Diane Vavra, his last girlfriend. “He has this ability to elicit sympathy, but it’s all a big act.” The most sensational revelations come from juxtaposed interviews with Baker’s third wife, Carol, and her rival, Ruth Young, who was his lover for 10 years. Referring to Ruth as “that bitch,” Carol blames her for her husband’s addiction and his downfall.

Baker was still addicted during the filming. At some

moments, he is alert and fresh; at others, he looks as if he is already dead. Either way, he is a haunting and inscrutable presence on camera. And he remains stubbornly real despite the film-maker’s attempt to mythologize him. In a final interview, Weber unctuously seeks his subject’s blessing with a was-it-good-for-you plea: “Will you be able to look back on this film in years to come and think of it as good times?” he asks. Baker fixes the film-maker with a withering stare and says, “How the hell else could I see it, Bruce?”

In The Final Season, John Bassett appears

equally diffident—and intolerant of sentimentality. In 1984, Mike Tollin, a documentary film-maker based in New York City, set out to make a portrait of Bassett’s team, the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League (USFL), a now-defunct spring circuit. The movie was to be a behind-the-scenes look at football and the men who play it. But midway through the six-month shoot, the focus shifted to Bassett’s losing battle against cancer. Recalled Tollin in an interview: “When I told John that his fight for his life was going to become part of the plot, he said, ‘Do whatever you want, it’s your damn movie.’ ”

The film is a strange hybrid. Narrated by Burt Reynolds, who owned a share of the Bandits, it is partly a fond tribute to a team and its founder. But it also dissects football culture with an irony so relentless that it verges on satire. There are some remarkable scenes showing huge players stuffing themselves with food or chugging beer. Eating serves as a constant motif. Even the scene most clearly designed to demonstrate Bassett’s generosity reinforces the image of gluttony—at a banquet that he organized to honor his team’s unsung heroes, the Tampa Bay linemen feed on great mounds of shrimp, lobster and beef.

The movie portrays Bassett—son of John W. H. Bassett, chairman of Baton Broadcasting Inc., and father of tennis star Carling BassettSeguso—as a benevolent despot loved by one and all. At the banquet, he gives each player the opportunity to win a salary bonus equal to the price of the feast by winning a coin toss. But, despite such magnanimous gestures, Bassett strikes a surly, insensitive pose onscreen. And the camera fails to penetrate the bravado of an individual who expresses impatience even with his rate of deterioration—during radiology treatments for his two brain tumors, he curtly asks a nurse why his hair has not fallen out yet.

As Bassett’s health worsens in Toronto, his team slips from first place. A late-season losing streak demoralizes the players, and the film chronicles a bitter locker-room feud with surprising candor. The Bandits did pull out of their slump in time to secure a playoff spot. But play was suspended—never to resume—as the eight-team league launched a $ 1.69-billion antitrust suit against the National Football League in its bid to compete in a fall schedule. Bassett, one of the few USFL owners opposing the move to fall games, died in Toronto on the same day that court proceedings began in New York. After securing a token award of only $3 from the court, the USFL soon disbanded.

The Final Season is a grim tale. Yet, even at its darkest moments, Reynolds keeps his narration doggedly upbeat. The actor’s peptalk platitudes seem wildly at odds with the sharply edited footage of unromanticized conflict. But incongruity is part of what makes the movie such an interesting document, the product of a game plan gone awry. A record of events that no film-maker could have scripted, The Final Season provides a unique view of life and death at the line of scrimmage.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON