Movie review: Chet Baker biopic features equal doses of truth and fiction
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Before you check out the atmospheric and arty “Born to Be Blue,” jump on Google, and punch in something like “jazz musicians with troubled lives.” If the list that pops up is alphabetical, the name of the film’s subject, Chet Baker, will be near the top. The late-trumpeter/singer, in his 1950s heyday, could coax the sweetest sounds out of his horn, and was gifted with a voice of almost unbearable beauty, one that – here’s a confession from this Baker fan – almost always makes me cry.
Baker’s was a story, as were so many on that list, about the harrowing effects of drug addiction. In the film’s opening scene, set in 1966 Italy, he’s a wreck, laid out on a jail cell floor, hallucinating. But the film, with a structure that smoothly flows in and out of and back and forth in time, jumps to black and white 1954, where the suave, handsome Baker, about to take the stage at the New York jazz hotspot Birdland for the first time, is introduced as “the prince of cool,” and delivers a laidback set to an audience that digs it.
A woman in his audience likes what he does so much, she invites him to her room, where she introduces him to another first-time experience — heroin. But as he’s getting that initial rush, another woman, Elaine (his wife? his girlfriend? we’re not sure), bursts into the room and proceeds to freak out over both the other woman and the needle.
Before the drama of that scene can sink in, it’s played over again, with a different look and feel, in 1966 Hollywood, on a soundstage, where Baker’s life story is being turned into a movie.
It’s a point at which “Born to Be Blue” reveals itself to be an innovative film, and when even vehement non-fans of Ethan Hawke are going to have to rethink their negative thoughts. Hawke plays both the young, cool Baker; the older, ravaged one; and the Baker that’s trying to be the Baker on that soundstage. A nice touch is that Elaine, as well Jane, the actress portraying her in the Chet film, are both played by Carmen Ejogo. So we get actors who are playing actors who are playing real people, except Baker wasn’t an actor.
Confusing? Yes, at first. Enticing and a treat to see? For sure. There are times when viewers aren’t going to be sure which reality they’re seeing. But it doesn’t matter, because watching “Born to Be Blue” is similar to listening to a swirling, ever-changing piece of jazz.
The story evolves into one of an artist being given a second chance. Baker had it all, lost it all, then went after it again. He fell under the spell of drugs, had his career and reputation ruined, then was offered help by people who believed in him. “If you’re on the straight and narrow now, let’s do another record,” says one producer (Callum Keith Rennie).
But that’s one of the few happy sections of this often downbeat movie. It also tells of Baker’s run-in with a drug dealer, resulting in a beating that broke his jaw and knocked out his teeth – not an ideal situation for a trumpet player. Then there are those flashes back to better days and his associations with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. And forward to much worse days when he says he’ll kill himself if he can’t play trumpet anymore, at which point Jane, who is also struggling, trying to be an actress, says to him, “Why don’t you sing?”
Hawke is superb in a tough role, whether his Baker is riding high or falling low, whether he’s having a run of good luck or going through yet another bout of no self-control. The film shifts between sad and uplifting, between misery and elation, and is always riveting. And there’s plenty of music on screen, with Hawke convincingly faking the trumpet parts to recordings, but doing all of his own singing, especially well on a soulful “My Funny Valentine.”
Two things: Though much of “Born to be Blue” is based on fact, the business of Chet Baker starring in a film about himself is completely fictional. A great film about how he ended up is the 1988 documentary “Let’s Get Lost.” Check it out.
— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Born to be blue
Written and directed by Robert Budreau
With Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Keith Rennie