A couple of weeks after one biopic review about a cool but tragic jazz trumpeter and another comes along. Where Miles Ahead told us in a stylised and fictionalised way of the world according to the legendary Miles Davis, Born to be Blue takes a “semi-factual, semi-fictional” voyage around the troubled genius that was Chet Baker.
And guess what? Second scene in shows a black and white Birdland in 1954 with Baker opening for Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Baker is playing his own brand of “west-coast swing” where Davis gets straight into hardcore bebop. Davis later describes Baker’s music as, “sweet…like candy,” and advises him to go back home to the beach. “This ain’t the place for you. Come back when you’ve lived a little.”
So he does. We see Chet being given is first fix of heroin by one of the women in his life (who look so similar that they are played by the same actress, Carmen Ejogo.). This is where his troubles begin… but this turns out to be a movie shot in 1966 looking back to the life of the famous trumpeter.
Rewind to the first scene: Baker is doing cold turkey in a bare jail cell in Lucca, Italy (home of olive oil, since you ask.) He is hallucinating: he can see his trumpet, with a tarantula creeping out of the horn – a potent metaphor if ever you saw one, but not one continued through the narrative, which you might say is an opportunity missed.
But then… the guard shows in a Hollywood movie director. Cue Wikipedia:
Variety’s reviewer, Andrew Barker, noted that the film is “about a character who happens to share a name and a significant number of biographical similarities with Chet Baker, taking the legendary West Coast jazz musician’s life as though it were merely a chord chart from which to launch an improvised set of new melodies”. Set largely in 1966, Baker (portrayed by Ethan Hawke) is hired to play himself in a movie about his earlier years when he first tried heroin. He romances actress Jane Azuka (a fictional character, a composite of several of Baker’s women in real life, portrayed here by Carmen Ejogo) but on their first date, Baker is attacked by thugs and his front teeth smashed. As Baker recovers from his injury, his embouchure is ruined and he is unable to play trumpet any better than a novice. Meanwhile, he must answer to a probation officer, and ensure he is employed, while sticking to his regime of methadone treatment.
So another parallel: just as Miles Ahead shows Davis losing his embouchure through five years of not playing, Baker loses his when he gets his teeth knocked out. Finding he can’t play, struggling with methadone and finding it tough to get a regular job to please his probation officer, Baker almost, almost loses the will to live. The film tells how he battles back, regains his chops over several years of pain and suffering, struggles with addiction and relationships but ultimately follows his heart – but not the way you might expect.
Having lived a life the hard way, Baker does eventually play Birdland again and earns grudging respect from Miles, but only after taking smack and knowing it would lose him the girl. The moral of the tale is that you can have the music or be a good husband, but not both – and in Baker’s case he chose to live in Europe, shoot H and play cool jazz… up to the point where he fell out of a Dutch hotel window, though that is not covered here.
Whether or not the film device adds to the coherence of BTBB (and I don’t think it adds a great deal of value, but then it disappears for most of the movie anyway), Baker’s life is undeniably perfect subject matter for a movie; writer/director Robert Budreau certainly thought so, and tries to imbue the film with a style and impressionistic leanness that comes off at least some of the time – though the film certainly prompted a love-it-or-hate-it marmite reaction.
It’s also a great career opportunity for Ethan Hawke to shine, much as Don Cheadle did as Davis. He sings My Funny Valentine and I’ve Never Been In Love Before like a man with no vocal talent fresh from a singing lesson, certainly not in the Baker class. Alas, Hawke is only miming the trumpet (played by Kevin Turcotte), but strangely I felt there was not enough music – several numbers are much curtailed for the screen. However, Hawke’s acting is what really counts, and here he demonstrates credentials: articulating the inner voice behind this complex character with no little skill and subtlety.
I might easily say the same of a fine cast, who are well-drilled and support better than you have any right to expect. Ejogo’s two roles as Elaine and Jane allow her to add light and shade to the role of women in Baker’s life, which she achieves more assertively than once might have been the case – luckily films rarely push women into an entirely passive role, even when they encompass times when women were often expected to be passive, particularly when they are arm candy to a great musician. Jane (as mentioned above, a composite character like Arlen Hird in Trumbo) is jealous if she sees her man being chatted up by groupies and junkheads, but it is the drugs that ultimately push her away.
Meanwhile, I was as impressed by Callum Keith Rennie as Dick Bock, Baker’s later manager, mentor, record company owner and virtually his psychoanalyst; and also by Stephen McHattie in a well-judged cameo as Baker’s ex-musician father, against whom he rebels when the son realises that is what he might turn into if he stays down on the farm.
For me this is a slow-burner of a portrayal, one that is growing in hindsight (it being now several hours since I saw the movie.) I will watch it again, for sure, but the question you’re going to ask is which I prefer: Born to be Blue or Miles Ahead?
Both are flawed, to be sure. One is madcap and occasionally hyperactive in pursuing a vision of the bizarre imagination of its eponymous hero, while the other is brooding and melancholy, arguably in contrast to the jazz he played. Cheadle beats Hawke by a nose in the impersonation stakes, but I suspect the more I watch both movies, the more BTBB will eventually come out on top, narrowly. We shall see.