In the last few weeks, we’ve seen three music biopics, and Born to Be Blue is by far the best of them. I Saw the Light portrayed Hank Williams, and Tom Hiddleston did a fine job in an otherwise uninspired film. Miles Ahead was Don Cheadle‘s long-awaited Miles Davis movie, which proved to be misguided, to say the least. Born to Be Blue is the Chet Baker story, and I’m not going out on a limb to state that he is the least well-known of the three musicians.
I first heard Baker’s recordings in 1985, when I worked at Tower Records, in San Francisco, and even the jazz experts there didn’t play him in the store too often, considering him a bit too subtle and certainly too eccentric, especially when he sang. Which is not to say he wasn’t appreciated, somewhat in the manner of Bill Evans, at least in terms of subtlety. Steady airtime there was devoted to the jazz powerhouses, like Coltrane and Miles and Mingus. Nevertheless, that subtlety is a treasure.
Director Robert Budreau‘s great coup is in his casting of Ethan Hawke (Good Will Hunting, Before Sunrise, Waking Life) as Baker. Hawke has the life experience and physical similarity to deeply embody the man, and also to credibly pull off the musical chops. The trumpet playing is of course not his, but the singing is, and his style is quite moving.
The young Chet Baker was, like all jazz musicians of the 1950’s, worshipping at the feet of Charlie Parker, to the extent of believing that shooting heroin, like Parker, would give him a chance at the same mystical powers of improvisation. This was obviously illusory, and always resulted in a quixotic quest that led to drug dependence at best, death at worst. Baker’s usage resulted in a savage beating at the hands of his dealer, which literally knocked the teeth out of his head. Hawke doesn’t overplay this, he simply shows us the devastating loss of embouchure for a trumpeter whose style was so dependent on delicate filigree, not blasting of notes. Hawke is central to every scene, and he is fantastic, perfectly shading each development without the melodramatic explosions that would have been tempting for a lesser actor. Baker is supported unreservedly, with a crucial exception, by his wife Jane, played by Carmen Ejogo (Selma, Sparkle). Ejogo is very fine, too, especially in her many scenes with Hawke, most impressively when they visit his parents. Those parents are Oklahomans, musicians both, and hold no understanding or sympathy for their son, much less for his African-American wife. His father, played with a chilling, wiry intensity by Stephen McHattie, has nothing but contempt for his son, even mocking his “girl” singing voice. And, on recordings, Baker’s voice is indeed quite shocking, which really isn’t quite replicated by Hawke’s fine tenor, meltingly beautiful in his rendition of Baker’s signature My Funny Valentine. Ejogo blithely lets Baker’s parents’ awful racism pass, with an air of “what else did I expect?”. Where she draws the line with her husband, a line from which, in the end, when he returns to it, she doesn’t falter, is his heroin use. Ejogo is also wonderfully evocative, as is the film in general, in her use of physical gestures to convey thoughts and feelings visually (so much more filmic than endless verbalizing). Her finest moment is her final break with her husband, when she sees a subtle hand movement as he plays in his big comeback, and responds with a simple gesture of her own, with steely finality.
The film has many scenes of Baker playing, in clubs, pizza parlors, and of course in the studio, and Hawke wonderfully and heart-breakingly captures his continuing problems with his false teeth, and the impossibility of taming them enough to regain anything near his previously perfect technique. But that loss of technique also served, paradoxically, to create a touching newfound feeling, conveyed nicely by Hawke. These scenes, many with his producer, played with mesmerizing quietness by Callum Rennie (Battlestar Galactica), are redolent of the time period and of what I imagine jazz sessions must have actually been like during those years. Plenty of period West Coast jazz abounds, with the standout being Charles Mingus‘ stomping Haitian Fight Song. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 7/26/16