Jazz legend Chet Baker gets the full muso-biopic treatment with “Born to Be Blue”, a fictional treatment of the singer/trumpeter’s comeback attempt in the mid-1960s. It stars Ethan Hawke, whose own youthful pretty-boy looks have grown haggard and weatherbeaten in a way that mirrors Baker, who was once known as “the James Dean of Jazz” before heroin, beatings and rough living took their toll.
Baker is an interesting subject for a film: He became famous in the ’50s for a style known as West Coast cool, a smoky sound that was more restrained and laid-back — and whiter — than most contemporary jazz. Baker was respected for his trumpet skills, ranked up there with Miles Davis by some, but he was equally loved and hated for his vocals — intimate, hushed and fragile — which added to his sensitive, androgynous air.
“Born To Be Blue” offers up the notion, frequently encountered in musician biopics, that you can’t play the blues until you’ve lived them. The film starts in 1964 with a middle-aged Baker being released from an Italian prison where he served time for drug possession. A comeback is in the works, with Baker playing himself in a movie biopic and a high-profile gig at New York City’s Birdland. Yet his past catches up with him when a couple of drug dealers whom he burned beat the living hell out of him, knocking out his teeth and injuring his jaw so badly he can no longer play.
The rest of the movie shows a man who has hit rock bottom trying to claw his way out; Baker has to frustratingly learn how to play trumpet all over again with dentures in place and stick to his methadone while reporting to a parole officer. Like most junkies, he’s lost the goodwill of friends and family. After an awkward visit to his Oklahoma home — where his father cuttingly asks him, “Why’d you have to sing like a girl?” — he relocates to California, living out of a VW camper van and practicing alone on the bluffs and beaches of the Pacific coast. (Director Robert Budreau’s widescreen shots seek to underline the influence of geography on Baker’s spacious sound.)
Baker schlepps through a menial job at a gas station, while playing at a local pizza parlor with some amateurs to try and find his chops, with only the love of one good woman to keep him going … which is a bit of a stretch. Aspiring actress Jane, who keeps Baker clean and sober, seems to be a composite of Baker’s many wives and lovers.
Jane (Carmen Ejogo, “Selma”) allows herself to be taken in by his charm and talent — and Baker’s solos were nothing if not sonic foreplay — but her career soon comes into conflict with the trumpeter’s little-boy-lost neediness, and the film, seemingly locked into a rather predictable biopic arc, takes a satisfying twist at the end.
Ejogo brings some real spark to her scenes, turning a thankless “supportive girlfriend” role into something deeper. Hawke nails the feckless musician vibe, exuding the nonchalance of a guy too used to getting by on charm alone. For an actor who loves to work with motormouthed dialogue, Hawke also dials back his sometimes manic quality.
Jazz fans knowledgeable about Baker’s career will find much to quibble with, since Budreau has opted for a “reimagining” of Baker’s life, and also since Hawke sings while Canadian trumpeter Kevin Turcotte overdubs the solos; they’re convincing, but they’re not Baker.
For casual fans or people who have yet to encounter Baker, “Born To Be Blue” is a good place to start, perfectly encapsulating the fragility and self-destructive urges that underlined his uniquely beautiful and melancholic music. The next step, of course, is 1989’s “Let’s Get Lost”; one of the all-time great music docs, this labor of love by fashion photographer Bruce Weber rebooted Baker’s fame and captured the grizzled musician looking back on his life just months before his mysterious death.