Born to be Blue
BORN TO BE BLUE, semi-biopic, rated R, The Screen, 3 chiles
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