Born to be Blue

BORN TO BE BLUE, semi-biopic, rated R, The Screen, 3 chiles

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Like a jazz riff that takes a fa­mil­iar melody and bends it, Robert Bu­dreau’s semi-biopic about Chet Baker uses episodes from the West Coast trum­peter’s life and shakes them out in ways meant to evoke rather than faith­fully rep­re­sent.

The movie opens in 1966 with Baker (Ethan Hawke) at a low, lit­er­ally as well as fig­u­ra­tively, as he lies in a heroin stu­por on the floor of an Ital­ian prison cell and watches as a taran­tula crawls at eye-level out of the bell of his trum­pet that is lying art­fully nearby. As it moves to­ward him the cell door opens, and a guard an­nounces that he has a vis­i­tor from Hol­ly­wood.

And then we’re back in 1954, in black and white. The young, clean Chet Baker, trail­ing glory as the pro­gen­i­tor of West Coast swing, ar­rives to make his de­but at Bird­land, the Man­hat­tan “Jazz Cor­ner of the World,” as bobby-sox­ers scream and swoon, and Miles Davis (an in­trigu­ingly Davis-like Kedar Brown) casts a cool, Olympian eye from the back of the house. “It was sweet, like candy,” Miles says con­de­scend­ingly when Baker asks how he liked his set. “Go back to the beach, man, and come back when you’ve lived a lit­tle.” Baker goes to his ho­tel room to live a lit­tle with a foxy young woman who shows him how to shoot heroin, un­til his wife, Elaine (Car­men Ejogo, Selma’s Coretta King), bursts in.

The movie now switches back to color, and we see that we are on the set of the biopic that a Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer had come to pro­pose (in real life, Dino De Lau­ren­tiis ap­proached Baker about star­ring in his own life story, but noth­ing came of it). “Is that how it re­ally was?” Elaine asks. Only now she is Jane, the ac­tress who is play­ing Elaine, and who is a com­pi­la­tion of sev­eral im­por­tant women in the jazzman’s life. Baker is play­ing him­self, which is to say Hawke is play­ing him play­ing him­self. If that sounds con­fus­ing, it’s not en­tirely un­in­ten­tional. The movie cy­cles through a lot of back-and-forth in time frame, but the shifts from color to black and white help keep things sorted out.

On the set of his biopic-within-a-biopic, Baker puts the moves on Jane, who isn’t hav­ing any. But he’s per­sis­tent, and still has some of the hand­some­ness that once earned him com­par­isons to James Dean. Even­tu­ally he wins Jane’s heart by tak­ing her bowl­ing and rolling a strike. But on the way home, drug deal­ers beat him up and smash his front teeth. This scene too has a ba­sis in fact: Baker’s teeth were knocked out by as­sailants, and he had to re­learn the trum­pet, try­ing to re­dis­cover his em­bouchure (the mouth’s feel of the in­stru­ment) with ill-fit­ting den­tures.

It’s a long, painful road back. His mu­sic and Jane are all he has to live for. He prac­tices till the blood flows from his mouth like beets boil­ing over. He and Jane live in a VW bus, which at least is parked by a pic­turesque beach where they make love and mu­sic, and stroll hand in hand into Cal­i­for­nia sun­sets.

There are dif­fi­cul­ties with the par­ents. He goes to see his folks (Janet-Laine Green and Stephen McHat­tie), Okies straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, who have lit­tle sym­pa­thy for his life­style. Her par­ents visit them at the beach, and are equally dis­en­chanted with their prospec­tive son-in-law.

But this is a post­mod­ern re­demp­tion story. Baker goes through hu­mil­i­at­ing strug­gles, in­clud­ing re­jec­tion by his for­mer pro­ducer Dick Bock (a fine Cal­lum Keith Ren­nie). A lo­cal bar band doesn’t rec­og­nize him and tells him, “You might want to prac­tice a lit­tle on your own.” But he fights through it, gets clean and sober, re­builds his em­bouchure, and makes his way back to form. There’s a re­union with Bock, en­cour­age­ment from Dizzy Gille­spie (an ex­cel­lent Kevin Han­chard), a stu­dio ses­sion, and fi­nally a re­turn to Bird­land.

Hawke, in a per­for­mance that gets deep and painful, plays a Baker who is only cool on the sur­face. Un­der­neath, he’s an anx­ious boy. His sex­ual tech­nique needs work, and Jane schools him on how to slow things down. And his heroin habit is both a refuge from pain and a place to find the courage for his play­ing. “It gives me con­fi­dence,” he tells Bock. “Time gets wider, not just longer, and I can get in­side ev­ery note.” Hawke does his own singing, and man­ages a rec­og­niz­able fac­sim­ile of Baker’s cool whis­pery vo­cal style. He also does a cred­i­ble job of blow­ing his in­stru­ment, with Kevin Tur­cotte pro­vid­ing the fine trum­pet riffs on the sound­track.

Ejogo brings a beauty of per­son and per­for­mance to the role of Jane. There’s a sad fa­mil­iar­ity to the cir­cum­stance she has to en­dure with Chet — not just his poverty and strug­gle, but his de­mand that she sac­ri­fice her act­ing ca­reer to be with him (the same trope plays out in the up­com­ing Miles Davis biopic Miles Ahead).

All the jit­tery shuf­fling of time and place and fic­tion mixed with fact keeps us at arm’s length in this movie, and that does seem to be part of what writer-di­rec­tor Robert Bu­dreau is af­ter here, a kind of Brechtian alien­ation to es­tab­lish a cool per­spec­tive for the au­di­ence. The movie is a bit of a mess, but it’s not an un­holy mess. — Jonathan Richards

Blow up: Ethan Hawke

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