A new movie biography tells the story of how the handsome jazz legend came back from a devastating beating while trying to fight his addiction to heroin
Born to be Blue
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo
Directed by: Robert Budreau
Running time: 97 minutes
Rating: 3½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
There’s a scene in Born to be Blue, a cool and dreamy jazz movie that has the stuttering smoothness of its subject, when the singer and trumpet player Chet Baker — “the James Dean of jazz,” as he was known at the time — makes his debut at Birdland, the legendary New York City club. It’s a mecca of hip, and Baker (played with a focused commitment by Ethan Hawke) is there to prove himself in front of an audience that includes his heroes, the be-bop legends Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.
“How do I look?,” Baker asks before he goes on stage; Baker had a chiseled movie-star handsomeness that added to his appeal, at least until the day he was assaulted in the street and has his teeth knocked out, resulting in a life-long struggle to regain his ability to play. Then he’s under the spotlight, where Hawke’s rendition of Let’s Get Lost (also the title, for those disposed to further research, of Bruce Weber’s great 1988 documentary about Baker) is as tender and wavering as Baker’s original. Later still, Baker’s father (a fierce cameo by Stephen McHattie) asks him why he sings like a girl.
After the show, Baker goes backstage to meet with Davis (another fierce cameo, if you can stand it, by Kedar Brown, one that makes you wonder if Don Cheadle will be able to match him in the upcoming jazz movie Miles Ahead.) “It was sweet,” Davis says from behind his intimidating sunglasses. “Like candy.”
It’s an accurate description of Baker’s easy style, and also a hipster putdown that drives Baker to return to California to garner some experience — and lose his teeth — before again trying to impress the hepcats on Broadway.
But first, let’s get meta. The Birdland scene, filmed in black and white, turns out to be part of a movie within the movie, a biography of Chet Baker that stars Chet Baker as himself and featuring a character named Elaine (Carmen Ejogo, who portrayed Coretta Scott King in the TV film Boycott and then in the theatrical movie Selma) representing all the women in Baker’s complicated life.
“Is this the scene where you do heroin for the first time?,” Elaine asks, breaking the fourth (or perhaps fifth) wall. The scene ends, Born to be Blue reverts to a colour picture, and the postmodern storytelling disappears, leaving behind only a few traces of self-reference that add texture and help mute what would be otherwise be a pretty grim tale. The movie-within-the-movie is invented (there was talk about such a film, but it was never made), but one of its conceits abides: Elaine is played by an actress named Jane, still played by Ejogo and still representing multitudes, who becomes the woman in Baker’s life.
Aside from all that, Born to be Blue is a fairly accurate representation of the period in Baker’s life in the 1960s when he has to recover from the disastrous beating — something about an unpaid drug debt, according to the film — and try to learn to play again.
It’s a familiar tale of a driven genius, heroin, and an unforgiving record business, represented by his manager Dick (Callum Keith Rennie, in an unblinking performance of a once-bitten professional.) But it’s given a fresh feeling by Canadian writer-director Robert Budreau, who fills the screen with smoky and iconic images — several scenes are staged like period photographs, with Hawke, dressed in gabardine and rayon, raising his horn to the crowd — but never overlooks the essential innocence of Baker’s obsessions. A scene where he sings his signature tune My Funny Valentine to a room of music professionals finds a touching connection between the troubled musician and Jane, standing staunchly at the back and knowing the song is for her.
Concentrating on just one part of Baker’s lost-and-found life lets Budreau focus on Baker’s little-boy torment, and Hawke — who resembles the real-life character but never really embodies the true collapse of his face after the beating — gives a fully committed performance. He’s bad news, as Jane says, but Hawke plays it with a matter-of-fact intensity. He’s an outsider in a world of harsh judgments, but he rides a quiet wave between cocky and pathetic. It’s sweet: not like candy, but like jazz.
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